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Poster: Chinatown

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Chinatown

USA, 1974
Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Directed by Roman Polanski
131 minutes

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: