Over the years, people have called Chinatown one of the best movies ever. I don’t quite agree with that statement, but there is no denying that the movie is a masterpiece. I may not find it one of the best films all-time, but I do find it as one of the best films of 1974. This noir film harkens back to the days where similar films were produced left and right. But starting from the 1960’s, this genre slowly began to fade away. The film may come across as really taking its time to tell the story, but the thriller has lots of tension that builds up to its climatic ending. This film brought public awareness to some issues people may not have really known about. Water is a commodity for human survival and whoever controls the water, controls the money. This movie is a complex series of events surrounding the control of water and that people can die over this issue. Ah, the wonders of being a human being! The movie is a complicated follow, so don’t lose yourself in any train of thought, or you might lose what will happen plot-wise. Boasting one of cinema’s all-time greatest screenplays by Robert Towne and a powerful lead performance by Jack Nicholson, you are in for a fantastic time.
As I mentioned briefly, the film’s plot can be complex as the film will turn down a completely different path in a heartbeat. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator who specializes in matrimonial affairs. One day, he gets a visit from a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray. She tells Jake that her husband is cheating on her and she would like Jake to investigate her claims. He does his job by taking photographs of him and he catches him with another woman. That ensues a scandal and Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). When the husband shows up dead, Gittes is led deeper and deeper in a web of deceit, lies, and murder.
This movie is given its voice by a variety of elements such as Robert Towne’s fantastic screenplay or Roman Polanksi’s visionary directing style. But let’s not forget about the wonderful performances including the tour de force performance by screen legend, Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s performance is nothing short of excellent as he portrays Jake Gittes. I loved how the movie gave in-depth characterization to this character. Gittes may not be the nicest man in the world, but he’s a man of honor and honesty. The movie is all about lies and that forms a rather bleak mental state for Gittes. All we wants to do is find the truth and move on, but that seems impossible to do with all the lies and murder. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and some might say he should have won. Who can forget that scene at the river bed where he is slashed in the nose by this random creep. Faye Dunaway also delivers an amazing performance. On the outside her character makes you believe she is good, but she has some fishy motives about her. Gittes falls in love with her, but he can’t take her sneaky lies. Then we have the performance of John Huston, the legendary director who plays Evelyn’s father. His character, Noah Cross is the antagonist of the film one would say as he wants to use his wealth to control the water. That dinner scene between Noah and Jake is quite something. Noah and his mean, beady eyes are put to good use.
This film was directed by Roman Polanski, before he was extradited to Europe and could only make films there. This movie has him returning back to the director’s chair, only a few years after the brutal murder of his wife and unborn child. I loved his sense of direction and he really captured the noir feeling you would find in the films of the 1940’s. His conflict with the screenwriter Robert Towne became somewhat famous. Towne had the film end with a happy ending, but Polanksi went against that. The ending is not a happy one as we get some unfortunate deaths from the wrong people, but it was an effective ending nonetheless. No matter what, Robert Towne written one of the best screenplays of all time and that will endure for many, many years into our future.
Chinatown was another instant success for Paramount studio. Between this and The Godfather, this studio was having a decade to remember up to this point. The noir genre has essentially been dead for years by the time 1974 rolled around, but this movie was able to revive the genre, only if it was for one picture. This film is labeled by film historians as a neo-noir. The basic elements of a noir film was here such as the emphasizing of cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. The ending is almost like a noir film where the revelations happen and the plot is explained. This is one of the most acclaimed neo-noir films and it would fit right at home with the noir films of the 40’s and 50’s.
Even though Chinatown is a fictional movie, it’s based of the Los Angeles water grab of 1908. This is a city that formed in a desert and it should be impossible for water to exist, which makes the control of the water ever more so fundamental. Towne did a great job adding his own 1930’s spin to the story. This movie is undeniably a great film. The pace crawls at times, but the content of the story kept me captivated. This is not an action thriller, but it’s one of those slow-burn thrillers focused on telling a top-rate story. The film fires on all cylinders because of it’s wonderful acting and solid direction. But we also have a great but sad, trumpet-infused score from Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography from John A. Alonzo that captures the L.A of old in a very effective way. Let’s not forget about the award-winning screenplay from Robert Towne. Nominated for 11 Oscars, this film is worth a watch. This is a fantastic thriller that relies upon excellent storytelling.
My Grade: A-