Polanski. I’m higher than some on Polanski because of my esteem for both of his occult films: Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. I think both are masterpieces, which, when paired with Chinatown, made Polanski one of the world’s best filmmakers at only age 41. However, he has not really capitalized on that amazing start to his career (4 of his best 5 films are before 1975). I read somewhere (forget now) that people had thought he would be David Cronenberg from 1977-onward and I can totally see that; making eerie, masterful films. If you combine his early work with Cronenberg’s career you have a legit rival for Scorsese as best living filmmaker.
Best film: Chinatown Chinatown. I’m tempted to say Rosemary’s Baby because I think that might be polanski’s greatest achievement as a director. Chinatown is one of the best 5 screenplays of all-time and it IS superbly directed by Polanski so I’ll keep it here. One of the greatest pure narrative films in the art-form’s history. A meditation on power, corruption—an intelligent labyrinth that updates (and improves upon) the best detective films of the studio system Hollywood era (superior to the detective films– Maltese Falcon)- it subverts and examines and redefines the genre though not on the level of Altman’s Long Goodbye from the previous year. The opening titles are gorgeous but feel a bit pastiche—but then you go right into the semi-graphic (clearly not 1930’s/40’s) still frame photos of the cheating wife with Burt Young. John Huston is not only perfect as Noah Cross- but a clear nod to Chandler, Hammett– as he’s the director of the Maltese Falcon of course. Strong retro-luminous Jerry Goldsmith score. The smirk from Jack is so good- overall he underplays the role- mostly, like F. Scott Fitzgerald says he’s a man defined by his actions, but there are moments for Jack that are undeniably Jack—we have him calling the hall of records kid a “weasel” under his breathe. Polanski and Towne (screenplay) so are patient—when looking through a desk Jack checks (and they shot) every drawer and what’s inside. It leads to nothing. Towne and Polanski are building a house here. The water- brilliant- so important for LA- mythic—a great “LA is a small town” line—perfect as maybe no actor more associated with LA either at this point than Jack- Mr. Laker court-side. The character is impeccably built from a formal standpoint—he never listens—someone tells him to wait and he goes ahead- again and again—. “Chinatown” is not only the perfect title- but a key character in the film- a largely unspoken fabled past, theme and undercurrent. The period detail and craft involved- such a high level- it’s all Polanski—he largely defers his stamp here to the screenplay and Jack and what they’re doing with the genre- but the paranoid is all him. There’s an unnatural panic and anxiety in the air that’s in Rosemary’s Baby, The Ghost Writer and all his best work—it’s a rigged game. The nose- it not only creates a memorable hallmark— but it works for the narrative- a reminder of the seriousness as we’re chasing abstracts. The scene where Nicholson and Dunaway make love is superb—we have the Goldsmith horns form the score and then, another throwback, they cut to his cigarette after—then the overhead shot of them in bed together is spectacular. Freud and narrative strength here- Dunaway is naked and then when Jack mentions he met her father she immediately covers up. The narrative- which is perfect- comes back to Burt Young at the end with bookends—similar to the funeral owner in The Godfather– favor is returned. Jack’s “your wife crossed her legs a little too quick” line. Narrative economy- the butler “bad for glass”- line would come back as well with the tide-pool. The daughter/sister scene with Dunaway is absolutely awe-inspiring. Polanski is clearly in love with the period and architecture- it shows. Love Noah Cross’ (Huston)’s line about how he wants to own the future. The epic finale is justifiably iconic as well… it’s not only the “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” line but the JFK-like head-wound in Dunaway with the haunting horn from the score and then we drift into the sky above Chinatown almost like we’re Dunaway watching. A masterpiece.
total archiveable films: 12
top 100 films: 1
top 500 films: 3 (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion)
top 100 films of the decade: 4 (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, The Ghost Writer)
most overrated: Cul-de-Sac. TSPDT has it all-time and as Polanski’s 6th. I have it as his 9th.
most underrated: Repulsion at #455 all-time on TSPDT is just flat wrong. This film is a masterpiece of horror/thriller. It’s Freudian and filled with paranoia and a wonderful performance by Deneuve. A fantastic #3 film that sets him apart from a few others on this list. I have the film at the #169 of all-time. If you need another that’s underrated it’s The Ghost Writer. The film is so much better, and closer to Chinatown than critics gave it credit for in 2010. Including the Chinatown comparisons are little things like the hired help at the house on the ocean sweeping the never-ending grass off the deck (being blown on by wind) just like the saltwater pool in the backyard of Dunaway’s house in Chinatown. There are also comparisons to both Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby (and other Polanski’s films but those two are the pillars) with the sheer paranoia and anxiety he’s able to create. Powerful stuff. McGregor googling CIA contacts scene reminds me of Mia Farrow reading the book on witchcraft. I’ve seen the film 3 times and every time I feel like it’s a HR- Highly Recommend or essentially a top 10 film of 2010, and then they film ends with two of the better scenes in the last decade including the shot of the note being handed from McGregor to Olivia Williams. The second shot is of course that final shot- the equivalent of the “forget it, Jake, It’s Chinatown” shot of the hit and run and pages of the unpublished book sweeping away. Fantastic finish.
gem I want to spotlight: Knife in the Water. He’s done a number of films that feel small and stagy with a background in theatre (enclosed/limited sets, small ensemble). Cul-de-sac is like this– as is Death and the Maiden, Repulsion, Carnage and others. Knife in the Water is along these lines but manages to separate itself with some of the framing and uncanny sense of paranoia Polanski is able to achieve. It’s a brilliant debut, and necessary starting point for a Polanski study.
stylistic innovations/traits: Unnerving cinema. Polanski’s films have a feeling of claustrophobia, paranoia and psychology that makes him a welcomed predecessor of Hitchcock and precursor to Cronenberg in many ways. His shot choices dictate this- the angles used in the phone booth in Rosemary’s Baby- I mean this is just a woman in a phone booth and Polanski makes it art. The angles in Repulsion (again a pretty girl in a room for 90 minutes). The choices to elevate the camera at the ends of Chinatown and The Ghost Writer—dread—systematic horror.
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Ghost Writer
- Knife in the Water
- The Tenant
- The Pianist
By year and grades
|1962- Knife in the Water||HR/MS|
|1976- The Tenant|
|1994- Death and the Maiden||R|
|2002- The Pianist||R|
|2010- The Ghost Writer||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives