(1974, Directed by Roman Polanski, Written by Robert Towne)
John Huston eventually emulated his actor father by performing in several films at the end of his long career, ranging from the original Casino Royale to Battle for the Planet of the Apes. However, he always claimed that he had only ever been pleased with his performance in Chinatown, and rightly so. Huston may not have written, directed, or “starred” in Chinatown but it is as much his film as it is Roman Polanski’s, Robert Towne’s or Jack Nicholson’s.
Huston was born in 1906 and so had lived through the period depicted in Chinatown, when Los Angeles became a metropolis, partly, the film suggests, by stealing water from the surrounding farmland. Huston, by now a genuine Hollywood veteran himself, seemed to embody all the vanity and venality of “old Hollywood” or “old LA”, as he is gradually unveiled as the true villain of the piece. And he is, quite simply, one of the greatest villains ever depicted on screen.
The key scene in the movie is when Jack Nicholson’s private eye, J.J. Gittes (Huston deliberately mispronounces it as “gits”, which is an old-fashioned English term of abuse), confronts Huston’s power-crazed patriarch, Noah Cross, with evidence of his many crimes, which include murder and incest. Gittes genuinely wonders why Cross, who is already a multi-millionaire, could possibly want more wealth. Cross simply but memorably points out that what he wants is “The future”, and that by controlling both Los Angeles’s water supply and his own family’s bloodline he will achieve that aim.
Nicholson was obviously watching closely at this point and learning from Huston’s scene-stealing (indeed movie-stealing) performance. Some 15 years later, when he himself was a Hollywood veteran, his Joker in Tim Burton’s original Batman movie was clearly indebted to Huston’s performance as Noah Cross, from his oft-repeated line, “Think about the future!”, to the macabre, grinning death-mask of a face he wore, which, although covered in paint, bore a striking similarity to Huston’s face in Chinatown.