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No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

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.

23 Responses

  1. I only finally got round to seeing Chinatown relatively recently. It’s a strange hypnotic film, and the thing I liked about it is that I didnt have a clue what was going on for most of it, which is no bad thing.

    • The only reason I did is that it’s possible — I said it’s possible, not probable — that I jotted down a note or two. And watched it twice. WHAT? It’s a confusing movie!

  2. Glad you finally got to see it, I remember you commenting that you had it queued when I reviewed it a few weeks back. I have seen it many times in the last fifteen years, it is always a film that gets to me. I find myself thinking about it days after watching it, I think my post was a sort of outlet for that. By the way great review, I think you really captured the heart and the mood of the film.

    • I think the Netflix sleeve blurb described the script as “onion-like,” and I’d say that’s a safe way to describe the movie. You peel off one part and you think you’ve got everything; then there’s another layer; then another. Eventually you get to the end, but you can’t quite remember how you got there (really, who counts the layers of an onion)? And then …

      Wow, I’m still working this onion metaphor.

  3. Great review– I think you really hit on what makes the film so iconic in cinema. It is so much the sum of all of its parts that even removing one element, or altering it somehow, would have irrevocably changed the film in ways we will never know. Would it still be remembered today if it was shot any different, for example? Probably, but each frame of the movie is so utterly perfect and just plain “right” that the notion of changing the composition of any of them feels equally criminal.

    • Right you are, Andrew, about “Chinatown” not working as well if you removed some element. Can’t imagine any part of it being different than it is — it all works so splendidly together. And I’m going to go ahead and say that NOBODY could play Gittes any better than Nicholson … which is saying something because I’m not the world’s biggest Jack Nicholson fan.

  4. For me, Chinatown and The Godfather Part II, both films that came out in 1974, represent the pinnacle of New Hollywood. On one hand you had a European immigrant, who’d witnessed the effect of the French New Wave firsthand and had even employed it in his Knife in the Water and Repulsion. On the other, you had an American who happened to be the child of immigrants, with a rich European background. Ergo, both could discuss the fundamental notions of America — hope, prosperity, morality — with the objectivity that a European could bring to it. As the natural-born citizen, Coppola’s vision was more fleshed-out, more specific and ultimately sadder.

    Polanski, on the other hand, was outright nihilistic. He’d left Europe, perhaps hoping to leave behind some of the scars of surviving the Holocaust, and come to America, only for his wife and unborn child to be murdered by what is now the most famous cult in modern history. It’s interesting to watch Chinatown and see how all the old touchstones of classic noir — the doomed villain, the femme fatale, the ultimate good of the law — all destroyed in despair. Chinatown is beautifully designed, shot and acted, yet it terrifies me, almost as much as Polanski’s Repulsion, which is my pick for the most effective horror film ever.

  5. I love this movie, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen it. It’s the layers of the story and the casting that did it for me.

  6. Classic Noir at its finest! An incredibly tight and well-acted script with not a moment of waste make this one of my all-time favorites. Incredible mood and characterization along with a classic Jerry Goldsmith score. Like much of the dark cinema of the 1970’s it leaves you feeling unsettled at the end. Faye Dunaway is a bit over-the-top but Nicholson plays it cool and believable.

    • “Tight” … that’s an excellent word to describe “Chinatown.” An earlier commenter said all the elements work perfectly together, and I’d add your word to that. They work so well because they are tightly interwoven. And this may be my favorite Jack Nicholson role … which is saying something, because aside from the odd “Shining” performance I’ve never been much of a Nicholson fan.

  7. […] the shadows with triggers cocked, or evil schemes more tangled than the plot of “Chinatown”? Such gimmicks are handy, even deserving of some nail biting, but they aren’t […]

  8. I’ve always felt connected to this movie, and if I’m not mistaken Nicholson is in every scene of the film but one…don’t quote me but I’m pretty sure.

    Have you seen “The Two Jakes”?

  9. was just about to comment on this and then realised i already had… six months ago.

  10. I hadn’t much thought about the effectiveness of Chinatown as a “colour” film noir – interesting observation. And while I would find it difficult to appreciate colour versions of film noir classics – I suspect that Chinatown would lose something if it had been shot in B&W. Curious…

  11. Wonderfully written review. I really like this movie as well and you explained perfectly why it’s so good.

  12. Chinatown is a great movie… very good stuff. but why is it considered to be the greatest screenplay ever written? I never got that.

  13. This film makes The Two Jakes so much more disappointing.

  14. Like that description about Gitte’s and his conscience being the heart of the movie. You’re right it drives everything. He could just forget about it all but no, he itches to find things out. Really loved Nicholson’s performance in this. He definately goes over the top sometimes, but in this its really great to see the way he tries to keep his character restrained while the madness goes on around him. One of the greatest movies ever. Nice review!

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