Release Date: June 20th, 1974 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Roman Polanski Actors: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd
ne of the most masterfully executed films of all time, “Chinatown” is the epitome of contemporary film noir, harkening back to the styles made famous in the ‘40s and ‘50s while infusing a severity and mystery all its own. Easily director Roman Polanski’s finest work, the shadowy locales and silhouetted figures, wisecracking dialogue, and gritty events perfectly complement the corrupt officials and ruthless hired thugs that surround shamus Jake Gittes on his quest for the unpredictable truth. Jack Nicholson portrays an unforgettable character in an intricate, absorbing movie that demands repeat viewings, earning a remarkable 11 Academy Award nominations in 1974 and topping countless critic lists (as well as going on to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and landing a spot on AFI’s Top 100 American Films list in both 1998 and 2007).
Private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to spy on her spouse to determine marital loyalty. As soon as Gittes’ investigation goes underway, the husband, Hollis Mulwray, the man behind Los Angeles’ Water and Power Company, turns up dead. To make matters worse, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) stops by with her lawyer to discuss the damaging gossip running through local newspaper headlines. Uncovering a knavish plot to deprive neighboring farmlands of water to force the sale of property at immoderately cheap prices, Gittes becomes determined to root out those responsible, especially after an unfavorable encounter with a switchblade-toting henchman (a cameo by Polanski, which leaves the detective looking a bit like the invisible man). Digging through the jobbery and deceit behind Mulwray’s murder and the extreme secrecy enshrouding Mrs. Mulwray and her father Noah Cross (John Huston), Gittes is cast headlong into a world of greed, extortion, unlawful carnality, and brutal violence.
Nicholson breathes life into Gittes in an Oscar-worthy tour de force, with zingy, sarcastic quips and commendable perseverance concerning the colossal gravity of his manipulative enemies’ stranglehold. He’s cool and collected, even when being held at knifepoint or gunpoint, and always a step ahead of his adversaries, both mentally and verbally. When things don’t add up, he isn’t afraid to dig deeper. Like “Yojimbo’s” lead samurai, he’s employed by every rivaling party during the course of the film, giving the impression that he’d gladly sacrifice wellbeing for answers, if only for the personal satisfaction of knowledge or perceived oneupmanship. He’s not afraid of bending the rules (“To tell you the truth, I lied a little”) and his cooperation with the law is oftentimes considerably fragile (akin to Perry Mason, minus the representation of only innocent people). Gittes is a flawed antihero with such enthralling idiosyncrasies, dubious traits, and sound street smarts that he arrestingly matches the wit and formidable personalities of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade rolled into one.
Featuring a twisty mystery, wherein the audience can only keep up with Gittes’ own sleuthing as it happens (perhaps hinting at the unguessable, in-over-his-head scenario that culminates at the titular locale of his haunted past), “Chinatown” demonstrates the chaos and avarice of wielding too much power and intermixing with seedy politics, which leads to complete moral decay and hapless familial innocents unable to escape unscathed. As it serves up an allegory for sustenance and deceit, twinned with grippingly volatile situations, psychological drama, and disturbing revelations, Polanski coordinates all of the elements into a spellbinding whole. The neo-noir design, the harrowing original screenplay by Robert Towne (who would win an Oscar for his efforts) and Polanski’s last-minute tragic finale edit, the evocative piano riffs by Jerry Goldsmith, John A. Alonzo’s distinguished cinematography, and the inimitable Jack Nicholson all come together for an outstanding piece of entertainment.
– Mike Massie