Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
The hard-boiled detective genre is an old one. There were hints of it in earlier films, but The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, really laid down the blueprint for future films in 1941. A convoluted mystery that begins with a visit from a femme fatale, a cynical detective with a code of honor, and a spider-like villain weaving a web at the center of the story are all familiar elements of this type of film.
In 1974, director Roman Polanski and scriptwriter Robert Towne resurrected the almost dead format with their masterpiece, Chinatown. They followed the rules of the genre (with a few twists) faithfully, only updating the filming techniques and some adult content that would have been merely hinted at in the 1940s. It's filmed in color, but is unquestionably film noir, or neo-noir as the style has come to be called.
The story is set in 1930s Los Angeles with a mystery that begins simply. Private eye J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is hired to follow an unfaithful husband. This action leads him deeper into a mystery of fake identities and political corruption surrounded around the water wars that were so important to the development of Los Angeles.
Producer Robert Evans approached Polanski to direct because he wanted a European director, someone with an outsider's view of Los Angeles and America. Polanski accepted the assignment somewhat reluctantly. It was his first visit back to the city since the murder of his wife Sharon Tate a few years before. Perhaps this contributed to his dark view of the story and his insistence that the ending not be a happy one, something that he and scriptwriter Robert Towne reportedly argued over, heatedly.
Polanski has long been a director who's more famous for being famous than he is for the quality of the movies he makes, but with Chinatown, he deserves much praise. The look of the film is terrific, the mystery is tense and appropriately twisty, while the cast deliver knockout performances. You could argue that Polanski has been living on his reputation from this movie and trying to live up to it, ever since.
This is also the movie that put Jack Nicholson on the A-List (a position that would be cemented the following year in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). He carries the movie, appearing in every scene and with the story unfolding from his point of view. As the years have passed, Jack's performances have grown bigger and bigger, until sometimes it almost seems as if he's doing his own Jack Nicholson impression, but here he plays it smaller. His Gittes is a layered character and Nicholson makes his depth visible to the audience. He received his 4th Oscar nomination for this film, part of an amazing run when from 1970 to 1976, he was nominated 5 times.
Typical of the genre, the plot is complex, or at least seems that way upon first watching. The mystery makes it seem more complicated than it really is. Towne's script is brilliant in the way it reveals the story. Of the 11 Oscar nominations the movie received, his script was the only winner and if it could only win one, then the right one was chosen.
Towne originally planned on writing a trilogy of films around the Gittes character. The second wouldn't appear until 1990 with the Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, which wasn't a hit and seems to have doomed the prospects for a third film. With such a classic as its predecessor, it's doubtful any sequel would have been able to live up to it or the memory of it.
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.
Chinatown (along with Casablanca, All About Eve and Network) has one of the greatest scripts ever written for a movie. Chinatown, in the story, is more than just a location, it represents the theme of being in over your head in something you don't completely understand. The script repeatedly -and brilliantly- refers to this mysterious place where J.J. Gittes used to work.
Although only the final few minutes of the movie actually take place in Chinatown, as an idea it hovers constantly around the fringes of the movie as this crazy place where vague but disturbing things occur. Even the joke Gittes gets such a kick out of telling has a punchline that goes, “You're screwin' just like a Chinaman!” And of course there's that classic final line, “Forget it Jake, It's Chinatown.” that has to be one of the greatest non sequiturs of all time.
I agree with Scott that Nicholson is exceptional in the role of Jake Gittes. He carries every scene with ease. We solve the mystery alongside him as he follows lead after lead in this labyrinth of intrigue and murder. Faye Dunaway is likewise terrific. She is glamorous and elegant when we first meet her but we quickly realize this is one mentally unstable woman. The famous scene where she reveals her dark and shameful secret retains its power to shock.
Again agreeing with my brother, Chinatown is the perfect marriage of style and content. It is the most famous example of neo-noir ever made. Notice how Polanski films most of the daylight scenes either in the early morning or in the evening thus enabling him to make the most of the dramatic shadows cast by sunlight coming from over the horizon. The style says classic Hollywood but the content is definitely post-1969. Jerry Goldsmith's jazz score (with those haunting trumpet solos) propels the story along. It takes over in those scenes where Gittes is driving around Los Angeles digging up clues.
Scott mentioned The Maltese Falcon, which was -of course- directed by John Huston. As an actor Huston found his most famous role in Noah Cross. He's a wonderful villain and easily one of the most vile and despicable creatures ever to grace the silver screen. Huston gives him a false air of courtly manners that, if anything, only adds to the character's sense of debauchery.
Chinatown is one of those extremely rare movies that got everything exactly right.
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
As Scott wrote, Jack Nicholson leads an amazing cast through a labyrinth of sticky situations and questionable suspects. Other than several vague references to events in Chinatown, little background is given on Jake. I like how he uses something as simple as a broken watch behind a tire to tell how long someone stayed somewhere. Nicholson is not playing some romantic version of a heroic investigator. He gets beat up and cut. He does get to have sex with Dunaway, but that could be viewed as her way of distracting him, or garnering his pity. It is not an indication of a possible future together.
Speaking of Dunaway, she was one of the biggest female stars of her time. From Bonnie and Clyde (1967) through the 1970s, she was the go to leading actress. Her list of classic films is quite long. Dunaway's looks, accentuated by those amazing cheek bones, and her distinct voice, attracts your attention and holds it. She carries Evelyn as a woman who has seen and done too much but is still quite vulnerable.
One cast member I found interesting is James Hong, who plays Evelyn's Chinese Butler. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After getting a college degree in engineering, went to work for the county of Los Angeles as a road engineer. He spent his time off playing tiny roles on television shows. His Chinese ancestry gave him plenty of work. Eventually he was able to quit his engineering job and act full time. Although he has done some film work, he has appeared in more television shows than can be counted. From Dragnet (1958) to Two Broke Girls (2012), Hong may very well hold some record for appearing in the greatest variety of television shows. He even auditioned for the role of Sulu on the original Star Trek.
This talented cast gets to deliver some memorable lines. Dunaway says to Nicholson, "Hollis seems to think you're an innocent man." To which he responds, "Well, I've been accused of a lot of things before, Mrs. Mulwray, but never that." When Hillerman notices the cut on Nicholson's nose he says, "That must really smart." Nicholson comes back with, "Only when I breathe."
I left John Huston for last as his Noah Cross is, as Patrick noted, incredibly vile. He delivers one of the most chilling lines, "You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING." His character is so slimy you may feel the need to bathe after watching this film.
Chinatown is mesmerizing.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1974)