Film Review: Chinatown (1974)

Release Date: June 20th, 1974
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston, Diane Ladd, Bruce Glover, James Hong

Paramount-Penthouse, Long Road Productions, Robert Evans Company, Paramount Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.” – Jake Gittes

Chinatown could very well be the best noir film that didn’t come out in the genre’s heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. It really embraces the style at its core but it is also a much harsher film than those older classics. In fact, it has a violent ending on par with Bonnie and Clyde, which is ironic, as Faye Dunaway is the female lead in both films.

This is my favorite Roman Polanski picture, although I need to rewatch several of them. But ultimately, the auteur director created a mesmerizing and well paced neo-noir that boasted stupendous acting from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, as well as creating an environment that felt authentic and lived in but also alien. But as noir pictures go, you really never know who anyone is and what their real motivations are. Chinatown is a well crafted tapestry of amazement and discomfort for the viewer, especially for a fan of film-noir or general crime thrillers.

The film takes place in 1930s Los Angeles, a decade before noir was born, but it feels truly at home in the style. Jack Nicholson plays private eye Jake Gittes, who traverses through the film as a rugged hero who is quick witted and always ready to deliver a killer one-liner. He is initially pulled into the story by a woman posing as someone she’s not. He takes the case but soon learns that all is not as it seems. In comes Faye Dunaway, the real woman who Gittes thought he was working for. There’s murder, political conspiracy and some dark secrets that come out, effecting the lives of all the key players. Although, Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is not your typical femme fatale.

Chinatown paints most of its characters as being guilty of something but also being victims. It makes you uncertain of all the characters and wary of the twists and turns that happen. This is a film with layers upon layers but everything just flows well and even if you’ve seen the film and you know what happens, the picture is still emotionally effective. The suspense is like a thick cloud that continues to grow from scene to scene.

John A. Alonzo handled the cinematography and this is probably the film he is most known for, even though he also did a stellar job with 1983’s Scarface. Before this picture, he worked on Harold and Maude and Vanishing Point. This film alone should have really made Alonzo’s career and even though he worked in Hollywood until his death in 2001, later in his career he worked on straightforward comedies like The Meteor ManHousesitter and Overboard. At least he went out with a good last effort with Deuces Wild, which wasn’t a great movie but it was a period film that captured 1950s Brooklyn quite well.

Roman Polanski would go on to be embroiled in controversy due to allegedly drugging and raping a thirteen year-old girl. He fled to France, where he has lived since the 1970s, never returning to the United States. He continued to make films, a dozen or so in fact, but there are only two of them that I found to be good, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist, both of which came out over twenty-five years after Chinatown. Polanski was never quite the auteur that he was, after fleeing the States and leaving behind the Hollywood system.

Chinatown is a true classic, though. In my opinion, it is Polanski’s best work. Jack Nicholson would try to replicate the film with a sequel that he directed in 1990 called The Two Jakes. It’s pretty good but it’s no Chinatown.

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