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.”