My favourite city film is ... Chinatown

For the Barbican’s City Visions series, we’re asking you to pick the best city film – with the winner to get a special Guardian Cities screening. Xan Brooks cheers for Chinatown

Voting ends today! Pick your favourite city film here

My favourite city film is … Wings of Desire
My favourite city film is … Blade Runner
My favourite city film is … Roman Holiday
My favourite city film is … The Third Man

Chinatown is a devastating movie about the original sin that spawned LA, a blast of Old Testament thunder in the guise of a silky film-noir thriller. The villain of the piece is Noah Cross (John Huston), a corroded old king who fathers a child by his daughter and merrily boasts that a powerful man can do whatever he likes. And yet it’s clear that Cross’s crime is merely a metaphor for an altogether wider evil, one that underpins the city. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. But the heart of town is steeped in darkness.

Directed by Roman Polanski and scripted by Robert Towne, Chinatown takes its lead from the so-called “rape of Owens Valley”, in which city planners siphoned water from a river to the north. The valley was destroyed and the residents forced out. But down in LA, the desert was blooming. The success of southern California, Towne suggests, is the result of a water grab organised by a cartel of corrupt speculators and politicians.

Chinatown is set in 1937 (a decade after the Owens Valley scandal) and paints a beguiling portrait of the hazy LA suburbs, conjured up in a weave of yellow and browns by cinematographer John Alonzo. It’s a film that leads us from the parched, failing orange groves to the suspiciously green and irrigated gardens where the rich folk live; from the timorous horror of the Albacore club (a front for corruption; no Jews allowed) to the lawless badlands of the Chinatown district, where men can get away with murder.

Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s dogged private eye, wants to solve the crime and set things right. But he’s outgunned and outnumbered, and on the wrong side of history. The gene pool has been poisoned; Los Angeles is born. “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” a cop tells him at the end. But lawless Chinatown has now burst its boundaries. It has swallowed the city whole.

Vote here

My favourite city film is … Wings of Desire
My favourite city film is … Blade Runner
My favourite city film is … Roman Holiday
My favourite city film is … The Third Man


Contributor

Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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