#19 Chinatown (1974)
It’s remarkable how Roman Polanski’s Chinatown feels like a classic film noir masterpiece of the 1940’s and, at the same time, seems to stand head and shoulders above them all. I don’t want to resort to hyperbole, but Chinatown is damn near perfect, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it is the purest realization of film noir ever filmed. Unless Casablanca is film noir, which no one seems to be able to agree on. Let’s not worry about genre categories then, and instead focus on what makes Chinatown so great.
Set in 1937 in a Los Angeles gripped by an intense drought, ex-cop and private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to investigate an adultery case concerning the head of the water and power authority, Mr. Mulwray. Turns out that the woman who hired him isn’t who she says she is but instead is impersonating Mr. Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway). Mr. Mulwray turns up dead, and Gittes finds himself an unsuspecting pawn awash in a widening pool of murder and conspiracy.
So we’ve got our hard-boiled detective, who’s smarmy and cracks wise while trying to remain one step ahead of both the good guys and the bad guys. Nicholson is very comfortable in this Bogart role, dripping with confidence and backbone while at the same time nursing a secret emptiness and weakness. Smart-ass one liners flow freely from his lips. While investigating Mulwray’s office, a colleague of Mulwray’s defends the man’s character, saying “he never even kids” about infidelity. Nicholson responds “Maybe he takes it very seriously.” Smooth, Jack. And we’ve got our femme fatale in Faye Dunaway. She first appears standing like a cold porcelain doll behind an unaware Nicholson as he tells a ribald joke to his associates. He’s laughing before he meets her, but when he turns and faces her his smile slips from his face by degrees until it’s gone entirely. By the end there will be no laughing at all. She’s a beautiful, seductive, dangerous woman whose entrance to his life will change everything.
Robert Towne’s screenplay won the Academy Award and rightly so. There is absolutely no fat on this script. It is so strong, so focused, so cohesive. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, as is Polanski’s direction. So many of Chinatown’s interior shots are filled with a tangible darkness that cloaks the film with menace. Polanski places these shadowy scenes alongside some truly magnificent outdoor shots of dying purple L.A. skies to great effect. The film’s elegant, minimalist approach ensures that there is no filler, no uninteresting distracting scenes. The characters are so well-drawn that they never come close to becoming the clichéd stock characters that one might expect from a hard-boiled detective story, and that’s partly down to the fine performances from Nicholson, Dunaway, and John Huston, who plays perhaps the most realistic and disturbing villain I’ve ever seen in a movie. And the music is superb. Jerry Goldsmith’s smoky jazz score is dreamlike, his trumpet weaving itself into the story perfectly. It’s subtle, haunting, sexy stuff.
Polanski said that if the film was going to be called Chinatown then there had to be a scene taking place there. So after numerous references to Nicholson’s tenure as a cop there, lingering in the shadows of the story, hinting at devious and perhaps shameful events that have since become taboo in some respect, we have a remarkable final scene taking place on the streets of Chinatown. And to call it bleak would be an understatement. The film was made just a few years after Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family in 1969. It stands to reason that the real life tragedy would color the ending, and it truly is unforgettable.
Although the ending is brutal, it is that severe quality that makes it all ring true. There’s no phony Hollywood ending here, no King Lear revisions to lighten the load of tragedy. The last few scenes combine to form a whirring series of shocking revelations, Gittes realizes that he never really had a handle on the case at all. He’s told early on that he doesn’t truly know what he’s dealing with, and this proves to be true as he gets it all wrong. The truth of what’s going on is unimaginable for Gittes and for the viewer; it turns out to be too shocking to guess. Gittes’ look of silent disbelief and abject horror in the final scene speaks volumes, but the bleak injustice of it all is undisputed. It cannot be disputed. The ending is perfect, and sets Chinatown apart from other films in its class.