June 16th, 2006
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Synopsis: A landmark movie in the film noir tradition, Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ stands as a true screen classic. Jack Nicholson is private-eye Jake Gittes, living off the murky moral climate of sunbaked, pre-war Southern California. Hired by a beautiful socialite (Faye Dunaway) to investigate her husband’s extramarital affair, Gittes is swept into a maelstrom of double dealings and deadly deceits, uncovering a web of personal and political scandals that come crashing together for one, unforgettable night in… Chinatown.
Critique: 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.
-James Berardinelli, ReelViews
My thoughts: The story of “Chinatown” unfolds like the layers of an union until you reach the core. Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career and John Huston is wonderful. Huston’s character (Noah Cross) exudes an aura of oily sleaziness that can be felt through the screen. This movie revived the Film Noir genre.