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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The seventies were the last years of great (American) films. I say
films because when we speak of movies nowadays, we allude to
blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars, the least
amount of controversy, and are mostly inane crowd pleasers with
Consider the output of influential film makers Allen during that time: Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Lumet, Ashby, Bogdanovich, to name a few Americans, not to mention European directors Fellini, Bergman, Wertmuller, Truffaut, Argento, Saura, and Bunuel -- all household names in those days. Before Spielberg and Lucas came along, not a single one of these made movies appealing to the "summer blockbuster tradition," and unlike Spielberg or Lucas, they have a body of work filled in high artistic quality with minimum special effects and a lasting mark on future generations.
Polanski is another one of these directors, and with "Chinatown," he reaches his directorial peak amidst the scandals which seemed to taint everything except his art. One can only imagine him in the forties, living his scandals, and transmuting this into high art -- when film-noir was at its darkest. Thankfully he lived in a time which did not demand the "happy ending" or re-shoots in order to be politically correct -- else "Chinatown" would have lost its devastating punch and conformed to the norm.
A departure from the horror genre which brought Polanski to stardom, he re-creates an equally grim genre with his jaded view of 1930s Los Angeles down to the choice of the color palette, and using the acting powers of Dunaway and Nicholson to a fantastic effect, he creates haunting characters who can't be easily dismissed as film-noir archetypes without looking very closely at their reactions, listening to their words, and following their progressive involvement in a plot which threatens to swallow them whole, and ultimately does. And having Huston play Noah Cross -- who virtually took noir to its heights with "The Maltese Falcon" -- Polanski hits the mark dead center, because Huston is the hardened heart of the corruption in "Chinatown." In brief scenes he creates a character almost unbearably evil with a hint of madness just underneath, and how he affects the characters around him will pervade the viewer long after the credits have rolled -- after all, he is the person who tells Nicholson he has no idea what he's getting himself into.
I doubt this movie could be made today for reasons stated above. I'm thankful Polanski's vision prevailed, and not Towne's. Film-noir is a genre about human darkness, and here, the envelope is pushed all the way through, making this film, in my opinion, rank second to "The Maltese Falcon."
There is a word, impossible to spell, that describes the alignment of
solar bodies like the planets when they all fall into place together. A
similar word would describe this film. Everything about it is right.
Polanski never directed a better movie. The performers, down to the
lowest atmosphere person, are superb. The editing, the score, the
sound, the decor, the dialog, all are just about flawless. The
photography is peerless. The white garden apartments, the terra cotta
roof tiles, the palms and desert sand are all painted with a faint
gold, faintly ripe with false promise, like the oranges that bounce
from Gittes' desperately speeding car in the northwest Valley.
Polanski deserves much of the credit. When Gittes surprises Evelyn Mulwray in her car, after he follows her to her daughter's house, her face slumps forward and beeps the horn briefly. Then, so faintly, we hear a few dogs bark in the background. Not only is the scene itself exquisitely done but it prefigures the ending, as does Gittes' remark earlier to Evelyn that she has a flaw in her iris. The movie is too good to deserve much dissecting. It stands repeated watching. If there is anything wrong with it, it is the serious and tragic ending that Polanski always insists on tacking on. Robert Towne was right and Polanski wrong in this case. Everything came together on this film. It's not only the best detective movie ever made; it's one of the best movies ever made -- period. A marvelous job by everyone concerned.
I have to add (6/27/05) that the word I mentioned in the first sentence is spelled "syzygy." Man, did I get enlightening email on that. I might as well add two other impressive features of this movie. (1) Polanksi takes his time. Example: Gittes sneaks into Hollis Mulwray's office and begins to go through the drawers of his old-fashioned wooden desk. As he slides each drawer out, Polanksi gives us a shot of their humdrum contents (checkbooks, magnifying glass, and so forth) and we can almost smell the heat and the odor of shellac and sawdust emanating from the wooden containers. The contents reveal nothing of importance in this case. But (2) sometimes irrelevant information crops up that resonates later in the film with its own echo. The detail might be just a word ("applecore") or an ordinary object (a pair of spectacles found in a pond, immediately after Gittes imitates the Japanese gardener's remark that the water is bad for the "glass.") Some of the references may be so consistent as to constitute a theme (water). None of this hits you over the head with its significance. It's all very neatly stitched together.
Jake Gittes is a former cop turned private detective. When he is
contracted by a Mrs Mulwray to find out if her husband is having an
affair, he takes to trailing Water Company Executive Hollis Mulwray.
Mulwray appears to only have water and a dry riverbed on his mind but
eventually they catch him with a young woman, although almost
immediately the news gets leaked to the papers and Mulwray goes
missing, only to turn up dead. At this point the real Mrs Mulwray comes
to Gittes threatening to sue him for his involvement and Jake realises
that he had been set up to set up the Mulwrays. He continues his
investigation into the murder only to find a conspiracy involving
thousands of gallons of water being wasted during a drought and the
mysterious presence of Mrs Mulwray's father, Noah Cross.
As a fan of film noir and tough detective movies, I am too often put off by modern entries into the genre that try to replace atmosphere and intelligence by just having nudity and swearing; the genre managed atmosphere without these in the forties and fifties but yet modern films seem to rely on them. With Chinatown however, everything works well as a homage to the best years of the genre and, as such, is very well set in the period and is of suitable presentation even if the material and tone is darker and harder than would have been allowed years ago. This is not to say it is just a copy and paste from better films because it isn't and indeed stands out as one of the best detective noirs I have seen in ages. The plot is always going to be the most important thing and it gets it spot on throughout, doing the proper thing of starting with a simple story and continually building it more and more complex as it goes. Unlike some other "classics" of the genre, Chinatown manages to do this without ever losing the audience and I found the plot to be both rewardingly complex but yet still very easy to follow.
Needless to say, things are very dark and the script is convincingly dark and miserable, leading to an ending that is as depressing as I've seen not so much in what actually happens but also in the wider implications for the characters that the credits prevent us from seeing. Director Polanski does a great job of putting this story in a lush setting that produces a real strong sense of period but also manages to always be showing us the darkness coming through subtly throughout the movie. Of course it helps that he also has a great cast to work with. Jack Nicholson is iconic in this role and, if I had to pick one film to act as an introduction to Nicholson then it would be this one. He is tough yet damaged, upright but seedy and he brings out his complex character well. Dunaway has less screen time but is just as impressive with a similarly dark role. Huston adds class and manages to ooze menace while also coming across as a harmless old man. The support cast are all fine but really the film belongs to these three, with Nicholson being the stand out role.
Overall this is a very classy film that has stood up very well to become a well-deserved classic. The story is complex, mysterious yet simple to follow; it is dark and seedy without relying on swearing or nudity to set the atmosphere. The direction is great, with a real atmosphere and sense of time and place that is matched by a great collection of performances delivering a great script.
From the first 10 minutes of the first time I saw this movie in the
theatre, I've truly loved it, more any other movie I've ever seen. Why?
Well, that easy, it's just so... PERFECT!
Obviously there are many other great movies, and many other movies I personally also love, but Chinatown has a real spell over me. Other fans have commented here on the story and the spellbinding way that the forlorn and utterly mysterious story unfolds. I certainly agree.
Chinatown's cinematography and editing? Yes, I agree again! IMO, it's breathtaking, with pacing so tight that I sit straight up thru the whole movie and my nerves become completely raw every time I watch, listen and FEEL it again.
I don't think anybody has commented yet on the great choice of the many supporting actors. Each one so well cast and very believable in their roles! You've got the entire cast credits list (thank you IMDb) so I won't list them here but there are so many memorable performances here! It would be unfair to highlight one, two or three! Good cops, bad cops, ugly rich, up-and-coming, downtrodden poor, the very honest and very crooked with all shades in between! Each and every role a character study in and of itself and together they make a living "time capsule" of the forties that we can revisit for generations to come.
And then there's that sound track which hooked me on great trumpet players and the Est Coast Jazz sound of the era. I just love that music and way it interweaves with the ongoing theme - it's perfectly united with the faithful and compelling use of the film-noir style.
I saw this movie first in Chicago and heck, back then I knew nothing about LA, though I've since moved to and lived in the area for years. Once relocated, I quickly discovered the historically interesting side to the story and then appreciated the movie from yet another compelling angle. No question, the plot is fundamentally sound with many totally unexpected and yet quite plausible turns. But I later understood that it's within the realm of believability from factual standpoint, as well as intellectually/emotionally.
Geez, I'll never forget that first confrontational scene at the Albacore Club! The study in absolute raw and evil power as masterly portrayed by John Huston. In the very same scene Jack Nicholson skillfully paints the subtleties of his cautious, cynical, small-time hustler character. The air crackles! I must have played this scene in my mind a thousand times. When I visited Catalina Island for the first time in about 1985, not knowing its significance to the movie, I walked by the Albacore Club (The Tuna Club in real life) and froze transfixed. I recognized it instantly of course, and I must have stood there gawking for 20 minutes not saying a word. I could literally HEAR the Chinatown theme - the memories were that clear and fresh!
In closing, I guess then what does it about Chinatown for me (why I feel so strongly that it is the very best movie of all) is that every facet of the movie construction, from the opening scene to the ending credits, somehow fits together in a homogeneous, complete and absolutely flawless way.
I find it fascinating to analyze the characters and their makeup. To imagine the reasons they did what they did. But there is NOTHING I would change. Nothing.
Chinatown is a tremendous collaborative effort that produced one of the
most memorable Hollywood pictures of the 1970's. Director Roman
Polanski (his last film in America, and the first he made in America
after the murder of Sharon Tate), stars Jack Nicholson & Faye Dunaway,
and writer Robert Towne, all come together to create a detective story
classic. At times it slows its pace down so the viewer can think along
with Nicholson's character, to take in the environment as well as the
situation he's in (i.e. when he goes to the empty reservoir, when he
visits Noah Crosses house the first time). And the script has the
perfect sense of drawing us into a story, fueled by curiosity, grit,
and cynicism, and engages the viewer by its realistic dialog between
J.J. Gittes (Nicholson, in one of his best 70's performances) is in Los Angeles circa 1933 in the line of private investigator, usually dealing with people who may or may not believe that their significant other is having an affair. Evelyn Mulwray feels this may be the case with her husband Hollis, and Gittes decides to take the case. However, this draws him into a deeper case involving the city's loss of water once Hollis- a major player in the water supply controversy in the city- is found murdered. This eventually leads him to Noah Cross (John Huston), a big businessman and who also happens to be Evelyn's father. Intrigue starts to develop, as Jake's own life begins to be at risk.
As a intricate, detailed detective story the film is an above-average work, with Towne's script containing the maturity, and wicked sense of humor, of a James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler novel. When the thrills come they come as being striking. And when humanity and compassion get thrown into the mix, the film reaches a whole other plane of intelligence. The last third of the film could turn off some of the audience (depending on one's own level of belief), but it holds strong thanks to the performances. Nicholson doesn't over-step his bounds in any scene, finding the right notes in suggestive conversations. Dunaway is better than expected (though I'm not sure if it's an great performance). And Huston's Noah Cross is one of the more disturbing villains of that period in movies. Add to it some good cameos (Burt Young as a driver, Polanski playing the little guy in the infamous 'knife' scene), and a smooth soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown comes out as strong piece of movie-making, and arguably one of the greatest in the crime/mystery genre.
Polanksi's 'Chinatown' stands as one of the classics of 1970s American
cinema, the last classic period in American cinema. It's a great
reminder of how utterly engaging cinema can be without the special
effects, flimsy plots and outrageous stunts of many major studio
productions now, not evening mentioning the obvious marketing tie-ins.
The cinematography and screenplay could be considered almost economical in its minimalism as it is really the story, script and characters that drive this movie forward.
Chinatown tells the story a detective, confidently played by Jack Nicholson, who gets embroiled in an investigation involving the mysterious murder (suicide?) of the head of the Water Board. During the investigation, he gets involved with Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the murdered man who appears to want to get to the bottom of the mystery but during the course of the movie demonstrates that she is not telling the whole story and has something to hide.
Everything in this movie works from already mentioned tight editing down to the costumes and sets.
If it wasn't for the fact that most of the cast would have been too young or
not born yet, this movie could have been made in the 1930's or 1940's. It
reminds one of the film noirs that Hollywood used to make during that time
period. It is a superb example of film making, certainly among the 20 best
movies I have ever seen.
Jack Nicholson is private detective Jake Gitties, who can be as hard-boiled as Humphrey Bogart's Phil Marlowe. But Gitties is different: He is intelligent, dresses well and has associates whom work with him. Gitties is hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate into an extra-martial affair she believes her husband is having. However, the investigation leads into bigger things involving the water supply of Los Angeles, which is in the middle of a drought. A series of double-crosses, murders and plot twists all lead into a climatic showdown in Chinatown which has a surprising conclusion.
If the saying `They don't make them like they used to' was ever more true, it was with this movie. Sex is only suggested between the Nicholson and Dunaway characters, yet it is convincing enough. And although Faye Dunaway is a beautiful woman, we never see frontal nudity of her (Directors today would do just the opposite). Some of the plot twists also would not be possibly made today, especially the ending (Which, if you haven't seen the movie, I cannot reveal).
Nicholson is a tour de force in his role as Gitties, but the rest of the supporting cast (Including John Huston as Mulwray's deceptive father) is equally superb. As to how Nicholson could loose the Best Actor Oscar to Art Carney in Harry and Toto is beyond me. Faye Dunaway was also nominated for Best Actress, only to loose to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Fortunately, Nicholson and Duanway have both won Oscars since. In addition, the film itself received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Roman Polanski (Who has a cameo in the movie as the knife-welding thug who cuts Nicholson's nose), but those Oscars would be lost to The Godfather, Part II. The only Oscar won was for Robert Towne's screenplay, which is today considered the model for film writing. After watching the movie, one will know why. From the stellar performances to the sharp direction to the superb screenplay, this is a cinema treasure.
While I don't care too much for Roman Polanski's style of direction(maybe I'll grow to like it eventually, maybe not), I can't deny that this is a truly great film. Jack Nicholson really shines through in his role, and his acting in this film perfectly fits the character... his shark smile, his voice, his tone... all of it, perfect. I always thought, when watching films with Nicholson, that he'd make a great lead in a noir film, so when I found this film and discovered that it was indeed noir, I naturally saw it as soon as possible. I found the film to have a slightly slower pace than what I would have preferred or expected, but apart from that minor detail, it was flawless. The plot is great, and thoroughly interesting and involving. The pacing, while not fast all the time, is more than acceptable. There are sequences that are really intense and exciting. The acting is great... like I said earlier, Nicholson shines through and really takes this character and makes him his own. The characters are well-written and credible. The special effects are well-done and still hold up pretty well. The dialog is very well-written and memorable. There are quite a few quotable lines, as well. The cinematography is good, and even when the plot doesn't move a lot, Polanski keeps our interest through interesting angles and sequences. I liked that there was often something subtle going on in the background, while we're focusing on what's directly in front of us. While Polanski certainly doesn't possess the attention to detail that Kubrick does, he manages to put a good bit of detail into many of the shots, and there is fairly little left to coincidence or chance, much like Kubrick. The film has a few twists that are quite good, and they come as surprises... I don't think I really saw them coming, and I doubt anyone would be able to. Of course, some might not find the twists to be that impressive, but the story stands on it's own nicely as well. This is a great movie, which should be seen by just about anyone who can take it(it's more than just casually adult in nature, even though there's not that much violence or sex in it). I recommend this film to anyone who enjoys film noir, watching Jack Nicholson in perfect shape in a role that was tailor-made for him, a good mystery, Roman Polanski's direction and just a good movie with a more adult tone that many others. 10/10
Truly deserving of its title as one of the greatest films of all time,
Chinatown delivers in spades. Everything about the film shines, and it looks
better now than it probably did in 1974; of course, there's a lot of junk in
the theaters these days. Acting, cinematography, script, atmosphere, it's
all 10s baby. The story of a struggling P.I. getting a case that has more
twists and turns than a mountain road is still one of the most crafted
storylines ever concocted. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John
Hillerman, and everyone else deliver superb performances. Robert Towne's
script, John A. Alonzo's camerawork, and Polanski's direction all make this
a classic. You can't be a movie buff if you haven't seen this
A film about LA and water set in the l930's during a drought with a dark incestuous subplot and some stunning performances by Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, and superb cinematography that seemed to capture the essence of LA. Directed by Roman Polanski, who makes a terrific cameo appearance as a switchblade wielding heavy, and using the considerable acting talents of John Huston as a ruthless and perverted landowner. Read Cadillac Desert to know about LA's water grab but see Chinatown for its brilliant allegory of water and corruption, both public and private. The direction, the screenplay, the acting, the photography, and the soundtrack combine to make a convincing and atmospheric picture. The crushing ending is just so much more icing on the cake.
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