Chinatown


Director: Roman Polanski.
Screenplay: Robert Towne.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Burt Young, Darrell Zwerling, Roy Jenson, Joe Mantell, Richard Bakalyan, Bruce Glover, James Hong, Noble Willingham, Rance Howard, Roman Polanski.

“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown”

In the 1970’s a bunch of American filmmakers and actors were given a bunch of money and told to just go away and make movies. And that they did. The consistent results led to the 70’s arguably being the best decade in cinema that America has ever produced. We were gifted such classics as Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mean Streets, The Godfathers and Dog Day Afternoon. Chinatown is another of those films that can be considered a classic among this elite list and one of a few from this era of filmmaking that time has been most kind to. 

Plot: In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) specialises in matrimonial/cheating spouse cases. When he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray who suspects her husband Hollis – a high-profile engineer – of having an affair, he gets on the case and produces photographs of him with a young girl. It soon transpires that Jake was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). When Hollis is found dead by drowning, Jake finds himself involved in a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and corruption that are all related to the city’s water supply.

Opening with Jerry Goldsmith’s seductive and evocative noir score, Chinatown establishes it’s mood from the very opening credit sequence and a perfect introduction of what to expect. Paying homage to the traditional gumshoe approach of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Roman Polanski has a confident handle on Robert Towne’s meticulously detailed screenplay. No sooner are we introduced to Private Investigator Jake Gittes as he surveys the sun-kissed lands of Los Angeles while applying the tricks of his trade to tail and investigate the latest of his infidelity cases. Like all good noir’s, however, our doggedly determined P.I. soon stumbles onto something much bigger. In this case, the possibility of murder and the financial benefits of gentrification. As a result, Chinatown becomes a labyrinthine puzzle of a wider political spectrum that reaches far beyond anything expected and where nothing is quite as it seems.

It’s apparent from the offset that Chinatown is an impeccably crafted film with a measured pace and an attention to detail that has rarely been matched. There’s so much on display that it’s obvious that the entire cast and crew are operating at the top of their game; Richard Sylbert’s production design perfectly captures the look and feel for 1930’s L.A. and it’s complimented greatly with John A. Alonzo’s sumptuous cinematography. It’s the twists and turns of Towne’s Oscar winning script that impress the most, though. He keeps us at arms length for the majority of the film and never reveals his hand a minute too soon. Nothing is rushed here as it marvels in patience. Even the title of the movie is elusive and doesn’t fully make sense until the film is given time to play out. In the meantime, Towne and Polanski tease with smidgens of information peppered throughout the narrative (with Polanski himself providing a now infamous nose-slicing cameo). For the first time viewer this could be a slight challenge but Chinatown has grown in its stature over the years because it’s has replay value. In fact, it demands it. This is not a film that can be fully appreciated in one sitting but if invested in, it all comes together masterfully.

Even Jack Nicholson and his penchant for grandstanding is kept to a minimum. Nicholson keeps his usual histrionics at bay and although he displays flashes of his energetic approach to a character, his Jake Gittes is a far more reserved performance. Oscar nominated for his work, some still claim this to be Jack’s best performance and it’s not hard to see why.

An elusive masterpiece of mystery and intrigue. The beauty of Chinatown‘s narrative lies in the deceitful lies told by it’s characters. So much of the dialogue and interactions are not what they seem and it maintains a sense of secrecy and mistrust that the story and film thrive on. At one point, John Huston’s callous and calculated Noah Cross says… “You may believe you know what you’re dealing with but you don’t” – this quote, in itself, sums up the film which also has a knock-out reveal that you, simply, don’t see coming.


It may be blasphemous to some (if not many) but my favourite of the sub-genre is still Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. That said, Hanson’s vision for that James Ellroy adaptation would, most likely, never have been possible had it not been for Chinatown leading the way in its style and composition. This is a timeless piece of cinema. Of course, the 1930’s setting lends a hand but Chinatown hasn’t aged in over 40 years which is a real testament to Polanski’s approach to the material and the exemplary work by all involved.


Mark Walker

Trivia: The screenplay is regarded as being one of the most perfect screenplays and is now a main teaching point in screen writing seminars and classes everywhere.

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3 Responses to “Chinatown”

  1. Five stars, indeed! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Definitely warrants every inch of praise.

    Liked by 1 person

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