In 1937, Los Angeles, California, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is hired by a wealthy lady to follow her husband whom she suspects of having an affair. The routine assignment is proven to be more complicated than it appears at first glance, and Gittes, suddenly and unexpectedly, finds himself in the midst of a web of financial trickery, corruption, and murder.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Filmmaker Roman Polanski, that European priest of paranoia, came to America to make Rosemary’s Baby (1968), one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Six years later, Polanski returned to Hollywood to make one of the best Watergate-era neo-noirs — Chinatown is a relentlessly downbeat tale of lust and avarice.
Frankly, I’ve watched Chinatown more times than I’d care to admit, and I still haven’t been able to peel off the film’s many layers. Writer Robert Towne (The Yakuza), who won a well-deserved Oscar for his work in the movie, invites viewers to join the film’s main character in a search for hidden clues. That’s probably why I keep going back to it — the movie’s intricate storyline demands multiple viewings.
The film is told entirely from the protagonist’s perceptive (Jack Nicholson’s Gittes is practically on every scene). The audience is forced to ride along with the private detective on a trip to nowhere. The quest is pointless, which leaves viewers as dumbfounded as the hero. Chinatown is an existential story at its core, alternating between nihilism and tragic romanticism — this is as dark and as hopeless as noir will ever get.
The ending does feel a little contrite, though. I think a few loose ends would have added greatly to the film’s unsettling atmosphere. But the rest of the movie is close to perfection. The acting in the film is particularly top-notch. Chinatown contains one of Nicholson’s very best performances. The actor is so good that you almost forget that he spends half of the movie wearing a ridiculously big bandage on his nose.
While Nicholson is indeed superb, Faye Dunaway (Network) gives, in my opinion, the best performance in the movie. Allegedly, Dunaway got the part because she was desperate for money and was willing to take a small paycheck. The battles between Dunaway and director Polanski are legendary. I don’t know the nature of their mutual hatred, but the end result is one of my all-time favorite performances.
Director, writer, and actor John Huston (The Treasure of Sierra Madre) effectively plays Dunaway’s despicable father, the movie’s main villain. The cast also includes John Hillerman (TV’s Magnum P.I.) as a corrupt politician, Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) as a mystery woman and Burt Young (Rocky) as one of Nicholson’s clients. Director Polanski has a cameo as the man who slits Nicholson’s nose.
Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) delivers yet another fantastic music score — it’s one of his finest if less celebrated works. John A. Alonzo’s (Lady Sings the Blues and Black Sunday) silky camera work is magnificent, too. Alonzo’s widescreen cinematography evokes the film noirs of the past. The beautiful costumes were designed by Anthea Sylbert (Shampoo and Fred Zinnemann’s Julia).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Chinatown won’t restore your faith in humanity. On the contrary, it will make you feel hopelessly depressed about the world and the people who inhabit it. But sometimes it’s good to see what we’re up against. The film is haunting and thought-provoking. Chinatown lives up to its reputation as one of the best murder-mysteries of all time. Highly recommended! Color, 130 minutes, Rated R.
Followed by The Two Jakes (1990)