‘Chinatown’ at 50 – Review

Chinatown (1974)
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: Robert Towne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Dick Bakalyan, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, James Hong, Belinda Palmer, Burt Young 

Films considered classics, masterpieces, among the greatest ever made, balance all aspects of the art form but are often remembered for one thing above the others: a particular technical innovation, iconic visuals, lauded performances. The now 50 years old Chinatown is most often acclaimed because of its Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne, a piece of writing with such wit, depth and darkness that it can continue to surprise you even after multiple viewings. Half a century on, how does this critically lauded mystery hold up?

Private investigator J.J “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) takes on a seemingly straightforward case of following an apparently wayward husband but is very soon in over his head, uncovering the dark family secrets of the wealthy Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and a far-reaching conspiracy involving water theft, land speculation and illicit business deals in a drought-stricken 1937 Los Angeles.

We need to talk about Roman Polanski, and acknowledge that while he was a hugely significant, accomplished and influential filmmaker, he is also a convicted sex offender who fled to Europe to avoid sentencing. While it is possible to take Chinatown at face value and completely separate the art from the artist, it would be disingenuous to talk about Polanski’s most famous film and its impact over time without acknowledging the crime that has ensured discussion of the artistic merits of his films has become an increasingly uncomfortable prospect in the times we live in. This is the man, after all, who prompted walkouts at the César Awards when he won Best Director in 2020 and was cited as one of the reasons Adèle Haenel chose to leave the film industry behind.

Towne’s screenplay is intentionally labyrinthine, designed to make you feel as overwhelmed and lost as Jake is for much of the movie. But it’s also an engrossing and well-told mystery peppered liberally with all-time great withering dialogue, usually delivered by Nicholson in a career-best turn. What’s Jake doing at the morgue? “Nothin’, Morty, it’s my lunch hour. I thought I’d drop by and see who dropped dead lately.” After getting his nostril cut open by a creepy thug played by a cameoing Polanski: “That must really smart / Only when I breathe”.  And of course his befuddling put-down to a heavy-handed cop in his way: “You’re dumber than you think I think you are.”

Jack Nicholson is in, and completely owns, every scene. And his complicated relationship with his client-turned lover Evelyn (Dunaway, fascinatingly illusive) is hypnotic, particularly in how their power dynamic ebbs and flows, and how both of them are forced to lie to each other and themselves for a variety of reasons. The only other person who gets more memorable lines than Nicholson is John Huston’s sinister industrialist Noah Cross, our untouchable villain of the piece being under no illusions about whose story those in power will believe: “Of course I’m respectable. I’m old! Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” and really isn’t kidding when he tells Jake “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”

A lot of filmmakers in the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and 70s seemed fascinated with the 1950s, the supposed 20 year cycle phenomenon of nostalgia and fashion. Chinatown is a fascinating example of a 40 year cycle. The 1970s saw the release of a wave of conspiracy thrillers such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, and this is another film that captured the zeitgeist of the time, but with a story rooted in a different decade of instability and uncertainty. Added to this, the meticulously constructed cinematography from John A. Alonzo (Scarface), which doesn’t draw attention to itself but equally makes sure that when characters move around the room the light always hits their face in the most dramatic manner possible – not to mention the iconic, enveloping brassy score from Jerry Goldsmith – fits perfectly with the retro sepia stylings of the opening credits and helps to suggest something seedy going on below the sunny California surface. 

Though Chinatown is clearly a work of fiction that works on its own terms and exaggerates or outright makes up what happened around the time the film is set, it definitely helps if you know something about the California Water Wars of the early 20th Century, where the rich cut deals and squabbled over ownership of vast areas of land and the water found there naturally or diverted artificially through it. William Mulholland (the inspiration for the film character Hollis Mulwray and namesake of Mulholland Drive) had masterminded the Los Angeles Aqueduct to carry water from the Owens Valley to L.A., making farming untenable in the valley just as it brought an essential resource to the city and its environs, thereby allowing its development and modernisation. It’s not hard to imagine a figure like this being manipulated and threatened by people even more rich and powerful, not to mention how he, as the face of a project that destroyed livelihoods, must have been despised and mistrusted by every common man trying to survive the Great Depression. 

Chinatown gives off an oppressive, uncomfortable atmosphere throughout (a Polanski speciality honed on Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), and the film is steeped in dark irony and symbolism. From the Department of Water and Power’s Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) being found drowned early in the movie after refusing the wrong under-the-table offer, to Jake getting his schnoz sliced for following his nose on hunches, and every other person we meet suffering with an unnatural summer cold, things are more than a little wrong in L.A. 

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” is a line that caps off one of the darkest final acts in American film. We know the rich get away with a lot, but the extent of the injustices and abuses of power here are palpable. If you’ve never experienced this film before and have managed to avoid hearing about the ending, nothing will prepare you for just how bleak things get, how it delivers one gut-punch after another in quick succession. Even the usually unflappable Jake, perfectly used to dealing with unsavoury types and under no illusions about how twisted the world can be, is left stunned, speechless and needing to be led away by his colleagues.

The level of influence Chinatown had on films that followed cannot be understated, from countless noirs and convoluted mysteries knowingly tipping their hats to far less esoteric work like Gore Verbinski’s animation Rango, which took exactly the same water conspiracy plot outline and repopulated it with desert critters in Western outfits.

Chinatown has all the hallmarks of a true great, from the level of craft demonstrated in recreating 1930s L.A. and the undeniable power of the key performances to how meticulously and expertly the screenplay delivers just the right amount of information at the right time to keep the mystery compelling and the revelations truly sickening. A belated sequel, The Two Jakes, again starring Nicholson and written by Towne, arrived sixteen years later to decidedly mixed results. They were clearly missing the magic touch, and perhaps that came from Polanski. Half a century on, it may be more difficult to discuss the creative output of someone so reviled and who has refused to face punishment for his crimes, but the reason Chinatown is still so often voted among the greatest films of all time, particularly in the opinions of directors and screenwriters who it has influenced, is because it is both a product of its time in what it is about on the surface and thematically, and also timeless as a near-perfect example of the form.

Score: 24/24

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Recommended for you: Jack Nicholson: 3 Career-Defining Performances

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