Chinatown, the movie

Although it is considered one of the best neo-noir movies, I had somehow missed this one until recently. Based in LA in 1937, the 1974 Roman Polanski movie staring Jack Nicholson is an acclaimed classic of the genre.

Late 30s period costums

The director spent a lot of time and energy recreating LA in the 30s, with spectacular result. This make the movie very relevant for this blog as fashion, cars and building were quite similar to the ones in the former French Concession and International Settlement at the same time. The only surprising part is the lack of Art Deco buildings in the movie, but most buildings are Mexican or Spanish Revival style that was also popular in Shanghai in the same period.

Just like the movie ” Casablanca” , Chinatown gives a pretty clear feel for the period dress and decor that was very similar in Old Shanghai. I can imagine that it was used as a base for Old Shanghai movies like 2010 “Shanghai” or “Tian Tang Kou“.

Films noirs and period movies like Chinatown must have also been an inspiration for neo noir writers including James Ellroy. See post “Perfidia” about his book. I am long searched for a really good noir book taking place in Old Shanghai. Paul French’s “City of devils” is pretty close to that though it’s not a novel.


Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.

Parallels between Old Shanghai and LA in the 1930s can also be found in Roman Polanski’s movie”Chinatown“. Another city that remains me of Old Shanghai for its mix of party, corruption and “everything goes” atmosphere in the same period was Berlin, see post “Meanwhile in Berlin” for more on this topic.