Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Directed by Roman Polanski
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private eye in 1937 Los Angeles, and like most private eyes, he spends his days taking pictures of adulterous spouses for emotionally shattered clients. It may not be glamorous, but it pays the bills. One day he is contacted by a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of a powerful water commissioner whom she suspects is cheating on her. Jake takes the case, and soon finds himself embroiled in water politics, murder, and a corruption and evil that runs so deep even Jake isn't prepared to face it.
Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir Chinatown is a moody, atmospheric masterpiece of despair. More than just a top-notch detective story, its Byzantine plot twists and gorgeous art direction and cinematography create a world where honest men are no match for those who wield real power, a Los Angeles where the sun shines all the time but cannot chase away the darkness. Nominated for 11 Oscars, it only won for original screenplay (it had the misfortune to be released in the same year as The Godfather, Part II), but its appeal has stood the test of time, and it is still remembered as one of the greats. Its influence can be seen in films like L.A. Confidential, of course (a decent film in its own right but, due to its similar setting and style, destined always to be unfavorably compared to Chinatown), but also in less obvious choices like Se7en and, most recently, Insomnia.
Before I saw Chinatown for the first time, all I really knew about it was that Jack Nicholson plays a 1930s private eye who gets his nose slashed by a thug. I pictured a hard-boiled, Humphrey-Bogart-as-Sam-Spade-or-Philip-Marlowe noir detective. In fact, while Chinatown is very much in the tradition of 1940s-era Hammett or Chandler noir, Jake Gittes is not. Though Jake is an experienced private dick who is quite familiar with the corruption and sleaze of the city and willing to grub around in it to serve his client, at heart he's an honest working stiff who tries to do his job conscientiously and bristles whenever someone suggests that what he does for a living makes him something other than an honorable man. Jake's wit is as quick as any noir detective's, but it tends toward the philosophical (when a client phones him and asks if he's alone, he quips, "Isn't everybody?"). These touches help humanize the detective without blunting his edge, making it easier for the audience to relate to him. Nicholson, who spent the 1960s and early 70s typecast in "hippie"/"rebel" pictures like Easy Rider and The Last Detail, cemented himself as an international star with his work as Jake Gittes, and it is still his finest role.
If you've never seen Chinatown before, you probably won't catch every detail. In the tradition of film noir, it features a complex, labyrinthine plot that can be hard to follow at times. (I'm still not sure I entirely understand what's going on in The Maltese Falcon, for example.) If you start to lose track of who's lying to whom and why, relax and don't panic. The film will give you everything it wants you to have.
Points to ponder:
- "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." It's one of the most famous lines in movie history. It's also, when you hear it in context, one of the saddest lines in movie history, and in five short words sums up the entire film. When you hear it, think about what it means.
- Roman Polanski has not led an easy life. Born in Paris in 1933, he moved with his parents at the age of three to Krakow, Poland; when the Nazis invaded, the family lived in the Jewish ghetto, and his parents were eventually imprisoned at Auschwitz, where his mother died. After the war he became a director and came to the United States, and in 1969 the Charles Manson family brutally murdered his pregnant wife Sharon Tate. Polanski made Chinatown just five years after this loss. To what extent do you think Polanski's own history influences the tone of the film?
- The story of California in the 20th century is really the story of water. The state exists as it is today because of the efforts of a few powerful men to move water from where it was plentiful to where it was not. One of the most powerful and influential was William Mulholland, the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from 1886 to 1928. The Los Angeles areas is essentially a desert, and Mulholland's most important achievement while in office was the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 250-mile-long pipeline from the Owens River to the San Fernando Valley. On November 5, 1913, with the words "There it is. Take it," Mulholland opened a valve at a San Fernando reservoir, the water began to flow, and modern Los Angeles was born. The building of the pipeline and the maneuvering Mulholland and his cronies performed to bring it about have become known as the Rape of the Owens Valley, and Chinatown tells its story. If you've noticed a similarity between the names "Hollis Mulwray" and "William Mulholland," you can assume it's not a coincidence.
- Perhaps better than just about any other film, Chinatown illustrates just how good a DVD can look: there's no obvious image degradation, edges are sharp, and cinematographer John Alonzo's yellows and browns come alive brilliantly even on a small screen. Because Chinatown is a period piece and Polanski shot it in a timeless style, the youthful appearance of actors like Nicholson and Dunaway is the only thing that clues a casual viewer in that the film was released a quarter century ago instead of last Friday. DVD creation is something of an art: the film has to be compressed to fit on the disc, but too much compression and you get obvious artifacts and distortions that distract from the viewing experience. Paramount obviously put a great deal of care into this disc, and the result is a near-reference-quality version of an outstanding movie that anyone should be proud to add to his or her library.