Chinatown is a gloriously grim masterpiece. It functions both as homage to the film noir heyday of the 1940s, and as a testament to the socio-cultural malaise of Nixonian America. Screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski deliver a gripping mystery, an atmospheric period piece, and a low-key character study, all boosted by Oscar-level production values. Best of all, the movie doesn’t arrive at a tidy, digestible ending. Instead, we’re left with a muddy melancholy that lingers long after the credits roll. Bleakness has never been so beautiful.
The story builds on the bones of classic noir: It’s 1937, Los Angeles. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a savvy, cynical P.I. who traffics in seedy information. So, when a wealthy wife (Diane Ladd) sits in his office, tugs on a long-handle cigarette, and suspects her husband of cheating, Gittes can barely contain his exhausted sarcasm: “Really? No.” Turns out, neither the woman nor her story are what they seem. Both, however, will pull Jake into a mystery that only gets more dangerous with every bend and twist.
Jake’s investigation points to the real-life water shortage that plagued L.A. in the 30s. Turns out, the woman in Jake’s office was a plant designed to set a nefarious plot in motion against Hollis Mulray (Darrell Zwerling). He’s a city engineer who believes that the water supply belongs to the people. This puts him at odds with local farmers and shadowy businessmen, both of whom want to claim the water for their own purposes. Naturally, Mulray’s altruist beliefs place him in grave danger.
Meanwhile, Jake meets the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway). She’s cool, clever, and loaded with secrets. Jake is instantly drawn to her, and not just because of her beauty: Somewhere within the fabric of Evelyn’s stories, there’s a frayed thread that can unravel the entire mystery. She could be a deadly femme fatale, a terrible victim, or something in between.
Jake eventually deduces one of Evelyn’s deepest secrets: Her father is a man of exorbitant wealth and influence. Noah Cross (John Huston) has long settled into a life of casual cruelty. He’s a villain who lives with the well-earned comfort of being too powerful to stop. Jake’s instinct says is Cross is involved in something sinister, but he also knows challenging such a man could be a fatal mistake.
I don’t really want to divulge any more. Towne’s mystery snakes in surprising directions, and part of Chinatown‘s magic lies in simply letting it take you there. It’s the sign of a truly great movie that the first act gives almost no clues how the final one will end.
And that’s just one of many reasons Towne won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It’s no mistake Towne’s script is held as the gold standard by film school professors: Every scene bears the immaculate construction of a Swiss watch, yet nothing about it feels mechanical. There’s no expository dialogue. No clunky voiceover. No scenes that alter the pace of the film’s slow-burning sizzle.
Consider the first meeting between Jake and Cross. Most movies would take the lazy route and spoon-feed you information about Cross. Towne simply shows you: Cross deliberately mispronounces Jake’s name, calling him Gitts, even after he’s corrected. He offers a salty summation of his own stature, in one of the movie’s legendary quotes: “Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Finally, he uses his deep pocketbook to try and turn Gittes to his side. In that scene, Towne gives you everything you need to know, without directly telling you anything. In fact, in a movie loaded with triumphs, Towne’s screenwriting might be the biggest star of all.
That fact makes it a little easier to address the Polanski-sized elephant in the room. As many know, the famed Polish director has been a fugitive for over forty years, with a pending case of underage rape here in the States. For most of that time, the filmmaking industry has glossed over Polanski’s actions–he pled guilty for a plea deal that was later rejected–while he’s continued cranking out films of varying quality. Finally, the massive boulder of Harvey Weinstein gathered enough momentum to roll over Polanski, as well. The last few years have seen the octogenarian effectively canceled.
Does this status taint Polanski’s movies? Yes, and it probably always should have. That’s especially true of Chinatown, where Polanski appears as a diminutive tough guy who knifes Nicholson. The film showcases the director’s undeniably masterful command. He’s probably in peak form here.
At the same time, the New Hollywood creed that directors are the true drivers of cinema probably outsizes Polanski’s contribution to the film itself. Yes, he earned that Oscar nomination. But so did a lot of other people: Nicholson commands the screen with the ease of a true superstar, and he and Dunaway boast incredible chemistry. Their tension sets the screen ablaze. (This is despite a reportedly toxic relationship between Dunaway and Polanski.) Huston is an odious villain. Jerry Goldsmith’s blustery trumpet blows through the film like a dry desert wind. John A. Alonzo’s cinematography supplies much of the film’s deceptive beauty.
Nothing about any of that praise is meant to minimize Polanski’s actions. But Chinatown has so many other great things; its legacy is diminished, but still intact. For me, that makes it a five-star movie, but with an asterisk attached. Still, the film’s content has held up so well, Towne’s closing line has taken on new irony over the years: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
130 min. R. Paramount Plus.
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