(United States, 1974)
The first time I saw Chinatown, when I was a teenager, I admired it. It seemed to me to be an enjoyable way to spend two hours. The next time I viewed it (in preparation for the disappointing sequel, The Two Jakes), about five years later, I was mesmerized. For, although it is possible to casually watch the film, it offers up its deepest treasures to those who invest the viewing experience with their entire attention. This is one of those movies where all of the elements click. The genre is that of the thriller, but there's so much more to the production than the simple story of a detective doggedly pursuing the truth. Chinatown is riveting, surprising, and ultimately tragic. The downbeat ending, endorsed by Polanski but disliked by screenwriter Robert Towne, is perfect. Depressing, but satisfying. Anything else would have seemed cheap. In fact, I'm convinced that one of the reasons the film is so highly regarded is because it had the courage to go with this ending, rather than something artificially lighter. This is a must-see for anyone with an interest in film noir, cinematic detective stories, or just extraordinarily well made movies. Chinatown is universally regarded as one of the best American films, and that's a distinction with which I'm not going to quarrel.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
At first glance, Jake Gittes (Nicholson) seems like the kind of private investigator who would be at home in the pages of a Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel. But that's an illusion. As we come to learn, Gittes isn't as thick-skinned as his numerous predecessors. Gittes' latest case starts innocently enough - those are the ones you have to watch out for - when a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) walks into his office and asks him to obtain evidence that her husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), is having an affair. Jake does so, and soon finds that the photographs he has taken of Mr. Mulwray, the L.A. Water Commissioner, and a pretty blonde have been sold to a local paper. Into his office comes the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and Jake knows he's been had. Someone has used him, and now he's determined to get to the bottom of it. Soon, however, his investigation leads to Mulwray's drowned body and Evelyn Mulwray's charming-but-sinister father, Noah Cross (John Huston), whose every word hints at past misdeeds too horrible to consider. Cross, who serves Jake a fish with the head still on for lunch, is clearly a man not to be trifled with. But Jake presses on. The conspiracy he uncovers does not involve a typical noir crime - there are no jewels, gems, or high-priced loot. Instead, Cross and some others are planning an elaborate scam to dry up the San Fernando valley by diverting water away from it, then to buy up the land cheaply, then to re-divert the water back to the valley so the property becomes fertile and the price skyrockets. Mulwray had the misfortune to figure out what's going on, and now Jake, following the dead man's trail, comes to the same conclusions. But how does Evelyn, who clearly has something to hide, fit into all of this? And who is Mulwray's mysterious mistress?
Chinatown is unquestionably one of the best films to emerge from the 1970s, a period that has been called the "last great decade of American cinema" by more than one movie critic. The production, which went in front of the cameras without a final script, marks the high-water point in the careers of both lead actor Jack Nicholson and director Roman Polanski. It also represents the finest color entry into the film noir genre (which, at the time, was dubbed "neo noir"). Yet, unlike the many hard boiled detective stories that litter the noir asphalt, Chinatown isn't afraid to play with conventions. Ever since film noir reached Hollywood, the detective has become a type, with film noir being his playground. It takes a Herculean effort to transform this type into a character and to replace the formula with a story, and Chinatown's success in both of these regards is one of the reasons it is universally viewed as a classic. The movie is a nearly flawless example of movie composition, with close examination revealing how carefully it was put together. For those who take a less studious and more visceral approach to movie viewing, it's also worth noting that Chinatown is a superior thriller - one that will keep viewers involved and "in the moment" until the final, mournful scene has come to a conclusion.
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