#120 Chinatown

(1974, Roman Polanski)

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”

Well, it’s another Polanski movie. Is this going to be another creepy apartment-based horror with questionable attitudes towards women? No, not at all. But it’s also nothing like Holocaust drama The Pianist either. It is in fact a crime thriller, drawing heavily from film noir. And a woman only gets beaten once, which showed that by the seventies Polanski was learning.

Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles, who receives a case from a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the water department’s chief engineer. She wants him to discover evidence of him cheating on her, which causes a major scandal, damaging Mulwray’s reputation. But then the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up, damaging Gittes’ reputation too. Determined to gain back some respect, he decides to investigate who the fake Mrs Mulwray really was, and begins to stumble on a murder case that connects to a greater conspiracy.

Chinatown was a very slow movie, like many Polanski movies seem to be, and yet this actually worked to the movie’s benefit. As events progress, things can get a little convoluted, and the slow pace actually makes it easier to keep track of everything. What’s more, the speed increases tension, and when major things happen, they end up being more shocking. For instance, when Gettes has his nose sliced open by one of the villain’s lackeys (funnily enough, played by Polanski himself), it’s so sudden and unexpected that the audience is just as surprised as Gettes.

In fact, despite being so on-the-fence with other Polanski movies, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Chinatown. Instead of feeling bloated and confused like some of his other movies, this one seemed a little more coherent. It lacks the kind of awkward pacing Rosemary’s Baby had, as well as the stilted acting of Repulsion. In fact, the confusion the movie presents is deliberate, as the case generates a web of intrigue and mystery, while Jack Nicholson manages to prove he can play more than just crazed maniacs with his portrayal of the determined yet subdued Gettes.

Of course, while the web of intrigue certainly contributes to the mystery of the movie – very important where a detective story is concerned – it can sometimes feel a little too confusing, to the point where multiple viewings are required to try and piece things together a little more. On top of this, the plot seems to leap around a lot, but with as many questions as the case throws up, this isn’t really surprising.

If there is a serious complaint to make about the movie, it’s that it doesn’t really do much to justify its title. There are hints to certain characters residing in Chinatown, and Mrs Mulwray (the real one) does indeed have Asian assistants, but it doesn’t feel prominent enough to justify naming the entire movie after it. Not that I’m one to recommend a better title, mind, but it certainly seemed strange to me, and possibly a little misleading.

Also, some of film noir’s major clichés are on display here. Nicholson’s character is cynical and world-weary, but quick to get involved with women he shouldn’t. At one point he describes troubles in his past, and naturally a woman he loved was involved, and that contributed to his pessimistic view of the world. It’s very much film noir by the numbers, and it’s a shame that little was done to differentiate him. In fact, it is largely Nicholson’s excellent portrayal of him that prevents him from feeling stale.

Ultimately though, I did enjoy the movie, despite being a little wary of it. Nicholson and Dunaway were both fantastic, even if some of the supporting players weren’t so thrilling, and the story was intriguing and confusing enough to make me want to watch it again to piece it all together further.

Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway & John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Produced by Robert Evans
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Edited by Sam O’Steen

Favourite Scene: The nose slicing. Sudden and gruesome, it’s a genuinely shocking moment.
Scene That Bugged Me: Gettes uses a business card as ID…and it works! Was there a point in history where this was OK, because it seemed wrong to me?

Watch it if: You want to see Jack Nicholson not act insane for once
Avoid it if: You prefer your mystery a little more modern


Posted on September 20, 2012, in 1970s, Film Noir, Mystery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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