CHINATOWN (1974 United States)

faye“You’ve seen it all years ago”, my ex-wife liked to say. “Why would you wanna see it again?” Like many of you, I feel like I have seen too much, but what the hell. If this blog is my second wife then I have to heed her call to “fill me up!” You, the voters, need something new to read, right? Never mind the spoilers, here’s the review…

Every now and then there are some truly perfect films that shine with every scene, every action, line, camera shot and Chinatown is one of them. The moment you see those opening credits in monochrome brown-sepia, you know you are in for a treat. Visually, it really is a glorious looking film; from the cars, the art direction, to the costumes and the Californian sunsets. Thanks to Polanski’s painstaking direction, the drama and pacing gradually creeps uneasily inside me as if I’m witnessing a horror movie. And I am. This is human evil at work, the ugly face of what really goes on in our corrupt world. I can feel butterflies in my stomach with each passing second of understated tension. Like an intrepid school kid stumbling upon my teachers and principal conducting a black mass.

Chinatown_108PyxurzThe simple score by Jerry Goldsmith is able to soak you into the story and everything has the feel of film noir, but with the twist of being like a 70s colour thriller. The film features many elements of the film noir genre, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. The plot, set in 1937 Los Angeles, was inspired by the California Water Wars: the historical disputes over land and water rights that raged in southern California during the 1910s/20s, in which William Mulholland acted on behalf of Los Angeles interests to secure water rights in the Owens Valley.

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t,” warns water baron Noah Cross, when cop-turned-private eye, J.J. “Jake” Gittes starts nosing around Cross’s water diversion scheme. That proves to be the ominous moral of the story. “Matrimonial work” specialist Gittes is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to tail her husband, Water Department engineer Hollis Mulwray. Gittes photographs him in the company of a young blonde and assumes the case is closed, only to discover that the real Mrs. Mulwray had nothing to do with hiring Gittes in the first place. When Hollis turns up dead, Gittes decides to investigate further, encountering a shady old-age home, corrupt bureaucrats, angry orange farmers, and a nostril-slicing thug along the way.

picture-5By the time he confronts Cross, Evelyn’s father and Mulwray’s former business partner, Jake thinks he knows everything, but an even more sordid truth awaits him. When circumstances force Jake to return to his old beat in Chinatown, he realizes just how impotent he is against the wealthy, depraved Cross. “Forget it, Jake,” his old partner tells him. “It’s Chinatown.” The period sheen renders this dilemma at once contemporary and timeless, pointing to larger implications about the effects of corporate rapaciousness on individuals.

Reworking the somber foundation of detective noir along more downbeat lines, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne convey a ’70s-inflected critique of capitalist and bureaucratic malevolence. They create a carefully detailed period piece hearkening back to the genre’s roots in the 1930s and ’40s. Gittes always has a smart comeback like Philip Marlowe, but the corruption Jake finds is too deep for one man to stop. As bruised and cynical as the decade that produced it, this noir classic benefits from Robert Towne’s brilliant screenplay, director Roman Polanski’s steady hand, and wonderful performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, not to mention a very creepy John Huston. This is Class all the way.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review, thanks for sharing! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! This film is definitely worth a look if you’ve never seen it before. 🙂

    Like

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