JJ 'Jake' Gittes is a private detective who seems to specialize in matrimonial cases. He is hired by Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city's water supply system, of having an affair. Gittes does what he does best and photographs him with a young girl but in the ensuing scandal, it seems he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray. When Mr. Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply. Written by
During water hearings in town hall, one spectator reads a Sunday newspaper comics section in which all the panels are clearly free-form Seventies style art, nothing like you'd see in comic strips of the Thirties. See more »
All right, Curly. Enough's enough. You can't eat the Venetian blinds. I just had them installed on Wednesday.
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Prettied up, lots of familiar twists, but well done, surely, and with Nicholson in top top form
Not so much a film noir in style or character, but a period crime drama, set in the familiar 1930s of many noir films, and featuring a noir fixture, the loner detective.
I say this right away because Chinatown is sometimes called the last great film noir. After this point, noir films (or pseudo-noir, whatever your definition) become either thoroughly modern or openly derivative. The term "film noir" has itself loosened up to include almost any moody 1940s-style film with crime in it, which starts lose it's descriptive usefulness.
But Jack Nicholson is, really, a great detective in the Raymond Chandler mode--sassy, fearless on the surface but actually wary and a little scared in the end, playing by his own set of rules, and working mostly alone. As well made as this movie is in many ways, it's Nicholson's physical presence that makes his scenes really work. He's such a natural actor for the camera, hesitating just long enough to demand attention but not so long it becomes affected, he becomes definitive. And that's enough to make Chinatown classic.
The plot, too, is great dramatic stuff. Based in L.A., with lots of night scenes and period interiors, it circles around pretty women and rich men and corrupt politicos and dubious cops. And around water. In a way, this makes the movie prescient, almost--water being no new topic for Los Angeles but increasingly pertinent in the 1970s. Water is also a MacGuffin in the plot, a device we don't care deeply about compared to the interpersonal intrigues, the incest, the murders. All this other stuff keeps the movie, and Nicholson, going, and it's snappy and well done. It isn't exactly brilliant, though, and anyone really looking at the screenplay and following the plot might raise an eyebrow now and then, or question some of the hyperbole around the movie.
It's fun seeing director Roman Polanski appear as a jerky, power-hungry kind of thug, because maybe it fits him (though his friends say otherwise). He has confessed to raping of a young teenager long ago, but I have never heard of him actually apologizing for it. (I know that's supposed to stay outside of the analysis of the movie, and he did do 42 days in jail.) Digging further in, you can maybe see John Huston's role as a little strained (though I love Huston in general, and his presence is meant to let us connect to a previous generation of Hollywood) and Faye Dunawaye, for all her fame, is slightly cold at times, a little decorative. The movie has lots of strong effects this way, and you know that Polanski is a movie lover, and the result taken whole is a kind of bowing down to this kind of crime film from earlier on. And in that sense, every doubt I have for the movie above could be countered with a simple, "It was intended that way." And the clichés and familiar plot twists are part of an homage to the medium.
Which then begs the question--why isn't it filmed with more energy, with less prettiness? It doesn't in fact, adapt to a rigorous, stark, shadowy film noir aesthetic, but instead layers a very well done but slightly 1970s perfect, technically excellent color. Not that it should have been black and white, and not that Farewell My Lovely (filmed the next year in a really vivid, visual, film noir style in color, in L.A.) is the only way to go. But there were options to avoid making it actually too pretty, and too tame.
All of this is relative nitpicking. I go back to Nicholson. If you can focus on his role, his lines, his performance, capital P, you will be mesmerized and impressed, again and again. It is a strong movie, and an interesting one, which is a lot.
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