The trouble with being a Man Who Wants to Know Too Much is that you can take a real beating for your curiosity. Now that “The Good German” is out on DVD, we’re set up for a Smackdown between two film noir mysteries where the men who keep asking impertinent questions of powerful people both get their faces mutilated for their troubles. Both Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” and George Clooney in “The Good German” play characters named Jake and wear hats most of the time while poking around in the shadowy corners of power. Nicholson literally got his nose sliced by Roman Polanksi for sticking it where it didn’t belong and Clooney gets his ear ripped at during a shadowy attack for trying to hear too much. As a consequence, both spend a great deal of screen time with white bandages on their heads which, for actors at the top of their respective games, can only be described as a bold choice for their characters.
Watching “The Good German” takes the viewer into a none-too-subtle time-warp whipped up by director Steven Soderbergh as an homage film with his buddy George Clooney, invoking all kinds of great 1940s movies. Written by the talented Paul Attanasio from a Joseph Kanon novel, it’s a black-and-white faux-”classic” set in partitioned Berlin just after the end of World War II. Clooney gets to play a jaded war-correspondent sent to Germany to cover the Potsdam conference. Naturally, his old girlfriend is a femme fatale who Cate Blanchett plays like Dietrich, full of doomed glamor and, honestly, she’s great. Not so for Tobey Maguire’s f**k-spewing, amoral American corporal plundering Berlin for black-market profits. Because the piece needs to sound important, the backdrop includes lots of drama involving Nazi scientists wanted by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the opening volley of the Cold War.
The Defending Champion
Robert Towne wrote the best screenplay he’s ever written and Roman Polanski directed his best film and both of them were beyond lucky that Jack Nicholson agreed to play J.J. Gittes. The result was “Chinatown.” Nicholson’s Gittes is no cliche — he’s no broke Philip Marlowe-loner. Instead, he’s a private eye with a decent practice, who’s seen enough human nature to be deeply cynical about it and, yet, he has a moral code and he’s sticking by it. Of course, all of this must involve a dame and, in this case, that’s Faye Dunaway. I have to admit the first time I saw this film I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the bond issue being floated and the dam being built and water being stolen from Los Angeles during a drought. But, on repeated viewings, it makes sense to me now and Towne’s screenplay seems to have — pardon the pun — watertight logic behind it. The film is moody, scary and compelling, but never affected.
As you can see from the black-and-white picture above, it would be fair to compare “The Good German” with “Casablanca” but we know how that one would go. Even so, what Soderbergh and Clooney attempted — basically a frame-by-frame re-shoot of classic ’40s filmmaking — draws attention to itself rather than drawing the audience into its character’s problems. You’re awfully busy in this film thinking of it as a film tribute instead of a story. There was an awful lot of drama in the days after the fall of the Nazis, and a great film could be made from it, but this one feels drained of most of its blood and life. This is a shame.
In contrast, “Chinatown” also has the feel of a 1940s movie, but it never depends on being a self-conscious manifestation of its genre. It actually is a private-eye film made with no winks or nods to the camera. It’s the real deal from Fade In to Fade Out. Mostly, though, you care so much about J.J. Gittes and his simple quest to learn the truth. That’s what sticks with you.
And, this may be petty, but the bandage on Nicholson’s nose is creepy. The bandage on Clooney’s ear is almost comical.
Admittedly, you’ve got a pretty clear idea who the winner is here. Do you want to know why?
If my son was writing this review, he’d give it to “Chinatown” simply because it was in color, no doubt. In fact, though, he’d have a point. The very black-and-whiteness of “The Good German” is part of the problem. It’s in love with its presentation and not with its story or its characters.
Make no mistake, Soderbergh’s devotion to his material in “The Good German” is obvious. It’s easy to start the film rooting for him to succeed but as the minutes wear on you realize the task he set for himself may not be impossible but it was too much to ask anyway. He’s going up against a central truth of the movies and of life. You can’t play it again, Sam.
The shortcomings of “The Good German” only makes the competition from “Chinatown” that much stronger. This is a film for the ages that, with each new viewing, reveals more and more of itself to you. Don’t bother, Jake, it’s “Chinatown” is the only decision that can be made.