I Cover Chinatown (Norman Foster, 1936) 🇺🇸
Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars: you might well feel you’ve seen everything there is to see in San Francisco, including enjoying the vista from its hills because for once the fog lifted!
But what would you say to a quirky trip to 1936 Chinatown in the company of Norman Foster himself, who directs the film as well as playing the role of Eddie? The dashing tour guide is standing in front of his sightseeing bus shouting himself hoarse trying to sell tickets, not unlike Roberto Benigni and his “ice cream” in Jarmusch’s Down By Law. So, ready for an adventure? It’s time to rouse Puss the sleeping driver and hop onboard this very unusual bus!
After driving past pagodas, lanterns, signs in Chinese and highly ornate flowery cornices, we draw to a halt in front of a jewellery shop window. A murder is being committed on the building’s first floor, but we hear nothing: the murderer has the good taste to use a gramophone to cover the noise. However, if you are curious to know more, our tour of the neighbourhood also takes in the crime scene. To plunge fully into it, simply get your hands on this colourful poster openly displaying the murder with the sort of close-up that brings to mind the sleazy headlines of old-fashioned illustrated gazettes. We feel for the innocent victim with her pleading face as she is murdered at the hands of her husband, Clark (chillingly played by Theodore Von Eltz). Her still-parted, lipsticked lips have just called him a “coward”, angering this manipulative, lying crook who would rather strangle his wife than allow her to leave him. Not because he loves her, but because he is afraid she will spill the beans about his crooked dealings, particularly to her sister Gloria who is about to arrive on a visit. If her train had not been delayed, the sisters would have been able to meet and Myra would never have ended up as a nameless body hidden in a trunk. Enough to “turn your blood to ice”, we are told by the guide, who, as the film progresses, sets out to investigate the crime and track down the murderer, culminating in a spectacular hillside chase sequence.
The movie would be no more than just another crime flick were it not for the presence in the background of the invisible and indescribable figure represented on the poster by a mask. This apparition, reminiscent of Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent) with Dracula’s teeth and Superman’s eyes, is a figure straight out of Chinese opera. Although we see the figure vainly attempting to come between the couple, his superpowers nonetheless lead to the inevitable “happy ending”. Beneath the perfidious and demonic features lies a fearsome yet benevolent deity. He haunts the basements of Chinatown, living in the ruins of his former neighbourhood that has been levelled by an earthquake (although this is historically inaccurate as the new Chinatown was rebuilt from scratch in a new location). Our tour is beginning to take on the feel of a horror movie. Having waited patiently for her sister until it dawns on her that she won’t be returning, Gloria too is tracked down and held captive by the fake jeweller and his brother (we see him on the poster tied up on the ground). Using the same trick as the criminal (the noisy gramophone), she organises her own escape with the help of the tour guide, who is also a specialist in hidden doors and secret passages. Their descent into the dark prompts much shrieking and shuddering at the sight of mice, rotten beams sticking out from the debris, and an earthenware statue of a soldier brandishing a papier-mâché sword. Trying to lighten the atmosphere, Eddie suggests that this backstage area of a one-time Chinese theatre would be a “great spot for a Halloween party”. But Gloria prefers the feel of his warm hand and consoling embraces. The two lovebirds feign fear in a mock horror-movie scene as a way to draw nearer to each other. They continue to get acquainted on the back seat of the bus under the approving eye of the protective deity.
The tour is over, please don’t forget the guide! Buying this poster will provide him with a healthy tip and ensure that you enjoy the benefits of tranquillity and peace in a space free from the presence of any demons!
Check out the French version of this article.