Pater Familias Wellsprings | Conan and Chinatown
Chinatown. The movie they tell you to watch. The screenplay they tell you to read. Director: Polanski. Writer: Robert Towne. Stars: Nicholson and Dunaway and John Huston.
“You’re a nosy kitty cat.”
“Sister! Daughter! Sister! Daughter!”
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Hollywood demi-god John Huston has the plum role as the villain, the benevolent-seeming sicko, the wealthy incestuous murderer with the magnificent voice. Jovial, hardy, twisted. Nicholson and Dunaway may have been the above-title stars, but John Huston’s work is truly great stuff indeed. Through his acting and the script’s twists, his Noah Cross charms through the rivulets of slime that widen into torrents the deeper you descend into Chinatown. The patriarch in all his foul glory, sending J.J. Gittes on a quest after his daughter.
This role parallels another robust filmic father-figure from a movie I’ve looked at before: King Osric in Conan the Barbarian.
Some similarities are striking. Osric is played by Max von Sydow, another old school cinema titan with a mesmerizing voice. Both characters are running kingdoms of sorts. Both offer riches to shabby snoops (Arnold and Jack) to locate their daughters. Both fear their daughters.
But they fear their daughters for different reasons. Osric’s daughter has been kidnapped and brainwashed by the sinister Thulsa Doom and will perhaps return to murder him with an ornate snake knife. Noah Cross fears Evelyn, the daughter he raped (Dunaway) will escape with his other daughter/granddaughter. Both men are motivated by the longing to hold their unraveling families together. They even offer similar speeches to illustrate their need to re-establish the father-daughter bond.
King Osric: There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gitts! The future. Now, where’s the girl? I want the only daughter I’ve got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.
Of course, Osric’s lines are inflected with epic grandiosity and Noah Cross speaks in his almost inscrutable bluntness. But the gist is the same: get me my daughter.
The biggest difference between the two roles (outside of the incest/rape/murder bit from Chinatown) is that Osric enters the movie briefly to give Conan a reason to start his revenge quest. The retrieval of his daughter is a convenient plot device to jump-start Conan’s life-or-death struggle for vengeance and understanding. Destiny, and the film, are Conan’s to control.
Noah Cross, on the other hand, drowns Chinatown in his sleaze. He enters the film at roughly the same point as Osric in Conan, but his presence never retreats. Jake Gittes and the audience get consumed in his horrifying mysteries. Everything gets traced back to Noah Cross and he proves to be an unbeatable villain. He’s the true wellspring from which the movie flows. Gittes, the ostensible hero of the film, basically gnaws a path through Cross’s underbelly—he’s surrounded and overpowered by the villain on all sides. The film operates in Cross’s world and Gittes just tries to navigate (with the audience) through it.
Conan ends hopefully, Chinatown does not. Both patriarchs get their daughters back, but one reunion signals the victory of the hero, the other signals the hero’s defeat at the hands of chance and an overwhelming adversary. Two dads, two daughters, one success, one sick feeling in your gut.
Father, grandfather, father, grandfather, villain, villain, villain.