Chinatown (1974) is the child of a dying womb. As with films like Unforgiven (1992) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Chinatown is the last masterpiece of a terminal art form: the film noir. In the wake of the Great Depression, America created a slew of highly-stylized crime tales, taking their cues from the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s,and hardboiled fiction writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The noir genre reigned for nearly a decade, but by the 1960s, it had all but died out. The New Wave of American Cinema had taken over and audiences were gravitating more towards auteur-driven, counterculture films. Genres like the musical, the cheap sci-fi and the noir began to fade away into the past.
However, in 1971, screenwriter Robert Towne sat down to write what was essentially a New Wave noir film. The screenplay,now ranked among the greatest of all time, follows cutthroat detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) on a quest to uncover the truth about the town’s water supply. What sets this movie apart from others in its genre is primarily the strength of the story, even if it does adhere to nearly every cliché in the book. The timing, the dialogue and the characters keep us entertained from start to finish. We are never tired while watching this film, because around every corner there is yet another high-stakes confrontation or mind-bending plot twist. Needless to say, the enduring influence of Chinatown comes primarily from the screenplay, which established the neo-noir as a significant genre. Without Chinatown, we might not have films like L.A. Confidential (1997) or Pulp Fiction (1994).
But, for a moment, let’s forget about Chinatown’s place in film history. The film itself is one of the most entertaining mysteries I have ever seen. It begins with a simple task; Detective Gittes is hired to investigate a cheating husband, but things quickly become more complicated when his client turns out to be an imposter and the husband ends up dead. Gittes is approached by Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), upset over being impersonated. However, she soon realizes her anger towards Gittes is misdirected and she instead hires him to find out who killed her husband. He sneaks around looking for answers and eventually stumbles on Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston), who informs him he is in over his head. Gittes, of course, ignores this warning and continues his detective work, travelling everywhere from the public records office to farms on the outskirts of town. The plot continues to spin further out of the control of the main characters until, finally, we come face-to-face with the tragic ending.
From a technical perspective, the film is nearly immaculate. Meticulous historical details populate every corner of the screen. The costumes, the sets and the props demonstrate tremendous knowledge of the time period. Director of Photography, John A. Alonzo, paints the film in crisp shades of beige and chartreuse. Sam O’Steen edits the film without flaw, allowing long, drawn-out takes to tell the story. The placid tone of the film can largely be attributed to this editing technique.
There are no bad performances in the film. Nicholson is strong as the central Jake Gittes, although not as memorable as he is in many other films. He embodies the character, but shows us little beneath the skin. Dunaway suffers the eternal slings and arrows of the disturbed Evelyn Mulwray, and Huston plays Noah Cross in the most chilling manner possible. He blames himself for nothing. In the most memorable moment of the film, he tells Gittes that “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they are capable of anything”.
However, my favorite part of this film by far is the score by Jerry Goldsmith. During tender moments, the melancholy trumpet and methodical jazz riffs fill the air with thick,smoky atmosphere. As the tension rises, Goldsmith plucks out ominous notes on the bottommost keys of a piano, sounding more like percussion than melody. Dramatic and haunting strings pull goosebumps out of thin air. A soothing harp punctuates the mysterious puzzles that surface from time to time. In all, this score weaves a musical tapestry unlike that of any other movie I know.
Director Roman Polanski has created a crime film to end all crime films. Movies like this are often used as high-water marks in the world of cinema and it’s not hard to see why. The labyrinthine plot and painstaking attention-to-detail put this at the forefront of the mystery genre.If you’re looking for something tangled and intense, but not too abstract, this is the movie for you.