Though he appears in just three scenes in Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, John Huston creates one of movie history’s most formidable villains: Noah Cross, the wealthy and ruthless land baron who masterminds an elaborate plot to buy up cheap desert property in the San Fernando Valley, irrigate it after bribing the water department, and sell the land for millions.
If people have trouble remembering the exact details of Cross’ plot, it may be because Robert Towne’s screenplay isn’t really about water corruption anyhow. It’s about evil lurking right under the sun—a film noir told not in high contrast shadows, but in the brightness of day. The film’s hero, detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is sharply decked out in light colored white or tan suits, and for at least half the movie he has a bandage covering his nose, which is sliced up by one of the villain’s henchmen. Throughout Chinatown, the perverse exists side-by-side with the pristine, and Cross exemplifies both extremes. The father of Gittes’s client Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is an amoral monster who recklessly destroys the lives of those around him. But as played by Huston, he’s not your typical heavy. This is due not just to Huston’s cheerful demeanor, but the personal and professional associations he brings to to Cross. The role taps the power and charisma associated with John Huston, filmmaker, performer and Hollywood legend.
Huston’s long directorial career began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon—whose hardcase hero, Sam Spade, was an antecedent of Jake Gittes—and produced, among other classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1952). His private life was ripe with hush-hush affairs, drunknness and elephant hunts; yet he leavened his machismo with an affinity for poetry and art. Huston had a house in Ireland and a fondness for literary classics, adapting the richly poetic stories of Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce for the screen. The man was a sea of contradictions, and one of the most domineering spirits in Hollywood. He only needs to walk onto the screen to command it, even opposite Nicholson. And yet for all his force of personality, Huston plays Cross as a charmer—a prosperous gentleman who invites his detective nemesis in for lunch. Throughout, he is jocular and folksy, uttering such quips as, “Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Knowledge of Huston’s filmography and private life complicates an already fascinating character. The bibilical connotations of the character’s name are abundantly clear, but the actor-director’s biography enriches it: Huston himself played the voice of God in his own 1966 adaptation of The Bible. Huston’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, is considered a misfire, but it’s also a bold portrayal of sexuality and repression, one that informs Cross’ secretive past whether Huston consciously drew on it or not. When Cross asks Gittes point blank if the detective is sleeping with his daughter (“Come, come,” he smiles after posing the query) Hollywood history buffs will recall that at the time, Nicholson was attached to Huston’s daughter, Anjelica Huston; this bit of trivia gives the scene an extra chill—a sense of personal intrusion.
Chinatown’s final revelations, which are far more disturbing than any water scheme, are all about personal intrusion. Cross’ daughter Evelyn hates and fears her father so much—flinching whenever his name is mentioned—that during Cross’ handful of scenes, we scrutinize every detail. That Cross invites Gittes to share a meal of fish with the heads still on offers a tiny clue into his delectations. Each line is weighted by revolting undercurrents. “You may think you know what’s going on here Mr. Gittes,” Cross says, mispronouncing the detective’s name as Gitts, “but you don’t.” By this point, Cross has recieved such a monumental buildup that Huston can conjure menace with little more than a grin.
Cross is an especially compelling role within Huston’s career because it cloaks a twisted, sinful man in the majesty of Huston’s old Hollywood charm. Cross’ lust for power is conjoined with his more carnal lusts for Evelyn, and the land crimes are paralleled by crimes of a more intimate nature behind closed doors; the old man’s sunny, “respectable” public image and depraved private life tease the viewer’s worst case visions of just how low Hollywood power players will sink to satisfy their fantasies, and how far they’ll go to acquire still more wealth. Huston’s choices as an actor mirror Polanki and Towne’s theme: evil doesn’t lurk in the shadows, it walks in daylight. Cross is so arrogant in his crimes, public and private, that he refuses to even acknowledge they are crimes. The land deal is merely his way of commandeering a road into the future, and as for Evelyn and the psychological burdens she has to bear for having Noah Cross as her father, and as more, he can only say, “I don’t blame myself.”
When his thugs threaten Gittes at gunpoint, Huston remains calm, as if speaking to a slightly rude dinner guest. But there’s a lack of empathy in his eyes that says everything we need to know. Polanski, who learned a little something about the nature of evil growing up Poland during WW II, lost his pregnant wife Sharon Tate to a Manson family massacre, and would subsequently relocate to Europe to escape a statuatory rape charge, doesn’t put Huston’s evil on a pedestal. Cross is often framed in long, unbroken two-shots opposite Gittes. This visual choice might have been the simple matter of not wanting to cut away from the subtleties of Nicholson and Huston’s interaction; but it might just as easily have been motivated by the realization that Cross’s evil is so potent that it doesn’t need to be emphasized in macro close-ups. When Cross gives Gittes the observation that at the right time and the right place, most people are capable of anything (with Huston whispering the last word as if it were a curse), it’s in the middle of one of those master takes we rarely see anymore.
Chinatown ends tragically, not for Noah Cross or his cronies in the government and the police department, but for Gittes, who is made to see his own impotence as a detective and as a man. The hero realizes, too late, that he’s uncovered a political and economic scheme that’s much bigger than he is; he realizes, too late, that he can never fully untangle the complex web of desire and betrayal linking Evelyn, Noah and Evelyn’s sister (or daughter), much less set things right. The detective’s cynicism pales before the old man’s casual depravity. To Cross, evil is business as usual. A handshake is his kiss of death.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrates the collected output of the Huston family August 18-Sept. 22. Chinatown screens at MOMA Sept. 1 and 18. For more information, click here.