Chinatown (United States, 1974)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

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. The result is a film that only seems traditional until you realize you don't know exactly where it's going.

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. In fact, when we first encounter Gittes, we can almost see the shadow of Humphrey Bogart occupying his space. But that's an illusion. As we come to learn, Gittes isn't as thick-skinned as his numerous predecessors. He cares (a decided rarity amongst the cynical lot that are cinematic P.I.'s ) and lives his life by a series of moral precepts that are not always governed by the principle of self-interest. Sure, Gittes can trade one-liners with the best of them, but his heart is bigger, and beats louder, than any of them.

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 requires that the viewer pay attention, not because there are lots of twists, but because the plot is complex and doesn't stop every ten minutes to bring slower audience members up to speed. While there are some surprises, one of which is significant, Chinatown isn't all about losing viewers in a maze of labyrinthine plot turns and switchbacks. Instead, it's interested in telling a story that applies the familiar trappings of the genre, although often in ways that defy audience expectations. One of the primary reasons Chinatown satisfies is that it never falls back on cliches or formulaic contrivances, right down to the grim and unexpected conclusion (about which director Polanski and writer Robert Towne had a heated argument).

Consider the femme fatale, one of the most enduring figures in any film noir endeavor. In Chinatown, that role and function fall to Faye Dunaway's Evelyn. Inscrutable for much of the film, she makes it as difficult for us as for Jake to determine what her agenda is, but we have been taught by countless other movies not to trust her. The femme fatale is, after all, usually a black widow - a beautiful but deadly spider who has the nasty habit of devouring her mate. But Chinatown ultimately reveals that Evelyn is not what she seems to be, nor what we anticipate that she will turn out to be. There's a core of fragile humanity in her that comes to the fore in certain key scenes. In the end, she turns out to be the lone character with pure motives.

During the course of a long and productive career, Jack Nicholson has portrayed numerous memorable characters (including Gittes a second time, in The Two Jakes), but never has his acting skill been more on display than in Chinatown. Made before Nicholson started playing every role with an over-the-top sneer, this movie shows off multiple facets of his talent - tenderness, quiet intensity, bulldog tenacity, and bravery in the face of danger. Before Chinatown, Nicholson was known, but not a bona fide star. This film, his first lead role, changed the direction of his career. Ten years after Chinatown, Nicholson was not just a major actor - he was an icon.

The decision to cast John Huston as Cross was a stroke of brilliance. Not only does Huston play the part perfectly - the right mix of oil and syrup - but he brings with him the right kind of baggage. The director of such Bogart classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and Key Largo, Huston's reputation in cinema was steeped in film noir. His in-depth understanding of the genre enabled him to essay the part perfectly - a thoroughly amoral individual whose apparent good nature can't conceal the stench of corruption that clings to him like a second skin. From his first appearance, Cross is unquestionably the film's villain, but he's also one of Chinatown's most fascinating denizens.

Faye Dunaway came to this role in the midst of the most fertile period of her career. Despite her reputation as being difficult to work with, there's no denying her talent or her ability to light up the screen. Her chemistry with Nicholson, although not rivaling that of Bogart and Becall, touches off a few sparks. She plays Evelyn with the right amount of ambiguity - enough to give us the sense that she's the femme fatale, but not so much that we're entirely sure. And, when the script requires a purely dramatic moment from her, she is capable of giving it.

Chinatown proved once and for all that a noir film does not have to be in black-and-white. While the idea of "color noir" may seem contradictory, this movie reinforced the notion that film noir is more a state of mind than a function of film stock. A motion picture does not have to be in black-and-white for shadows to play an important part (or, in some cases, the complete absence of shadows under a bright California sun), and, as cinematographer John A. Alonzo illustrates, it's possible to generate as powerfully ominous an atmosphere through color shots as through monochromatic ones. Set design is also impressive. The 1930s Los Angeles evoked here is the exaggerated stuff of dreams and movies, and the unreality of it all works in the context of the film. (A similar approach to another time period, the 1950s, powered Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, another superior color noir effort.)

For many noir films, the music is as important as the cinematography and set design in establishing the tone. For Chinatown, Jerry Goldsmith turned in a moody, ethereal score that is unlike anything else for which he has been responsible in his long career. Goldsmith's music evokes Hollywood when it was still a place where dreams were made, when stars were bigger than life, and when Tinseltown was more than just a worn-out nickname. It's not a rousing score, but it fits Chinatown's style and atmosphere more tightly than a surgical glove.

For director Roman Polanski, whose filmography behind the camera could be used as a textbook example of unevenness, Chinatown represents the apex of his career. His return to Hollywood after a several year absence (he left the United States for Europe following the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the infamous Manson Family), Chinatown uses every strength in Polanski's arsenal, while falling afoul of none of his weaknesses. No previous or future effort equaled Chinatown - not Rosemary's Baby, which introduced him to mainstream audiences, nor Tess, his lugubrious interpretation of the Thomas Hardy novel. And certainly not his recent fare, which has included duds like Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate.

Could Chinatown be made today, in a Hollywood climate that rewards productions with no ambition and demands happy endings? Probably not. Even in 1974, screenwriter Robert Towne wanted a more upbeat conclusion, but Polanski believed that the film's true path intersected with tragedy. From the vantage point of almost 30 years distance, it's difficult to argue with the director's interpretation. Had Towne's vision held, the mediocre climax would have robbed Chinatown of an element of its power. One has to wonder whether it would be held in as high regard.

The most interesting aspect of the ending is how, although much of Chinatown is concerned with the unraveling of the San Fernando land buying conspiracy, the eventual resolution involves events that have nothing to do with the "big picture" and everything to do with the warped relationship between various key characters. In its final moments, we appreciate the manner in which Chinatown works both as a mystery and as an exploration of a deeper, more personal human tragedy. Gittes is not an unattached observer, as many private investigators are, and his involvement lends greater impact to the conclusion - especially since we see events through his eyes. He is, after all, our surrogate throughout the film.

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.

Chinatown (United States, 1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd
Screenplay: Robert Towne
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Ranked #33 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1