Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.
Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.
There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.
Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.
“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.