Chinatown (1974) looks and feels like a very modern film, in the sense that you feel you are in that world of the thirties, when the action takes place. That was the very intention of Roman Polanski and he carried it out flawlessly. “I wanted the style of the period conveyed by a scrupulously accurate reconstruction of decor, costumes, and idiom – not by a deliberate imitation, in 1973, of thirties film techniques.”
“In Chinatown, what I was trying to create was this Philip Marlowe atmosphere, which I’d never seen in the movies the way I got it in the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.” Indeed, Chinatown is not only a one of a kind film noir, but a complete film. As James Greenberg says in his retrospective on the director’s work, what Polanski brought “to this quintessentially American material was a European sensibility and an unerring feeling for the darkness of the human soul”. That’s why the difference between a European director working in Hollywood and an American director often shows – the first is more willing and driven to break away from clichés and stay true to a more realistic vision. One other thing Roman Polanski fought for was the tragic ending, which was essential for following the logic of the plot – an ending that takes place in Chinatown, but that also links the story to the metaphorical Chinatown, a place where things go hopelessly wrong, despite one’s best intentions. So many good American movies could have been great if the directors hadn’t been slaves to the Hollywood system and given way to a forced happy-ending.
Faye Dunaway, deceivingly seductive in an all-white equestrian outfit. How modern is that? She reminds me of another film noir femme fatale wearing head-to-toe white: Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
In another elegant riding attire, as seen by Jake Gittes in a framed photo on her husband’s desk.
Given Polanski’s obsession for period accuracy, there is no wonder that the costumes created by Anthea Sylbert are memorable for their thirties LA authenticity. Faye Dunaway, as Evelyn Mulwray, makes a great role, and the costumes she wears help her tremendously to commit to her character. Faye’s clothes also blend in with the narrative and the warm tones of the film and with that incredible Los Angeles light – John Alonzo’s creative, beautiful cinematography made it look like a classic black and white movie magically transposed to colour. “The costume designer’s job is not to draw to oneself, but to serve the whole. If you want to be a star, become a fashion designer”, Sylbert once remarked.
The elegant and lean silhouettes of ’30s fashion are effortlessly brought to life by Faye Dunaway, as she incredibly did with other costume designs in other films which are still referenced for their influential style, like Bonnie and Clyde and Network. But her glamorous appearance has a much deeper meaning: it hides many well-kept secrets.
In another sharply tailored suit and beautiful hat.
Polanski modeled Dunaway’s narrow eyebrows and cupid-bow lipstick after how he remembered his mother from his childhood.
When it came to the make-up of the period, Polanski told Faye what he wanted her to look like and she was all for the idea, “to such an extent that she went completely berserk with this, and after every take she would redo that goddamn make-up and the lipstick which took forever”, says the director in the book Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, still half amused and half annoyed. But her retro beauty, with her perfect make-up and thirties-era finger waves, is crucial to the film, bearing probably even more importance than her clothes, so Faye has her undeniable merits there.
Another period feature, plunging V-neck and pearls.
Faye has perfected the art of wearing hats in her movies.
I couldn’t get a better shot at this outfit, but the brown belted suede jacket worn over a black turtleneck, along with a below-the-knee skirt and leather gloves, was worth a try.
photos: movie stills captured by me from this Blu-ray edition, except for images 1 and 6 – publicity stills | Paramount Pictures
source: Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, by James Greenberg