In the 1930s, Los Angeles, California, P.I. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, The Shining) is hired to tail a government official who is suspected of having an illicit love affair. The job is proven more complicated than it appears at first glance and Gittes suddenly finds himself in the midst of a web of deceit, corruption, and even murder.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Roman Polanski, the European priest of paranoia, came to Hollywood to make Rosemary’s Baby (1968), one of the best of horror films of the 1960s. Six years later, he single-handedly created the best neo-noir of the Watergate era. Chinatown is a devastating portrait of man’s/woman’s inability to rise above evil.
As far as I’m concerned, Chinatown is one of the best mystery-thrillers ever made. I’ve watched this movie more times than I can possible imagine and in 30-plus years I haven’t been able to peel off the film’s many layers. It’s an existential story at its core, alternating between nihilism and tragic romanticism — a very exciting, fascinating movie that lends itself to endless discussions.
Polanski’s perversion has no limits. He turns the viewer into a peeping tom. Chinatown is told entirely from Gittes’s perceptive. We only see what he sees. We notice the clues when he notices them. You are slowly pulled along with Gittes into a sinister world to watch, but never to participate. This is as dark and as hopeless as noir will ever get.
Robert Towne’s (Shampoo) Oscar-winning screenplay is brilliantly constructed. I have always had some issues with the ending, though — it feels a bit mechanical, too neatly put together. The movie screams for an ambiguous finale. A few loose ends would have added greatly to the film’s unsettling atmosphere.
Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) delivers a fantastic music score. It’s one of his finest if less celebrated works. John A. Alonzo’s (Harold and Maude) richly textured color cinematography is magnificent too.
Jack Nicholson is superb, but Dunaway has, in my opinion, the most interesting character in the movie. The role was originally offered to producer Robert Evans’s then wife Ali MacGraw (Love Story), but after she ran off with actor Steve McQueen the part landed on Dunaway’s lap. She was allegedly selected because she was desperate for money and was willing to take a small paycheck. The battles between Dunaway and Polanski are legendary. I’m not sure the nature of their mutual hatred, but the end result is one of my all-time favorite performances.
Director John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) plays Dunaway’s creepy father and while he has a tendency to ham things up (probably the main reason he was not nominated for an Oscar), he is very effective as the movie’s main villain. The excellent cast includes John Hillerman (TV’s Magnum P.I.), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart), and Burt Young (Rocky). Polanski has a cameo as the man who slits Nicholson’s nose.
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 and lives up to its reputation as one of the best thrillers of all time. Highly recommended! Color, 130 minutes, Rated R.
Followed by The Two Jakes (1990)