Our latest entry into the 44 Days of Paranoia is a dark masterpiece. Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made.
Chinatown takes place in 1940s Los Angeles. Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray. She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair. Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman (Belinda Palmer) and hands them over to Evelyn.
The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray. Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.
Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation. This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston). Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’s fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend.
As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’s murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past. Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be. To say anything else about the plot would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen Chinatown before.
Since I first started reviewing films for this site, one of the things that I’ve discovered is that it’s actually easier to review a bad film than a good film. It’s easier to be snarky and cynical about the latest film from Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich than it is to explain why a film works. There’s a famous saying about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it,” and sometimes that’s the way I feel whenever it comes time to try to review a great film.
Consider Chinatown. At its heart, Chinatown is an homage to the old film noirs of the 40s and 50s. Now, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many noir homages I’ve seen. It seems like every director has to make at least one hard-boiled, morally ambiguous detective film. Chinatown has all of the familiar elements — the hero is a private investigator, Evelyn Mulwray initially appears to be a classic femme fatale, the dialogue is appropriately cynical, and the plot is full of twist and turns. Even the film’s theme of political conspiracy serves to remind us that most noirs used their detective stories as a way to explore the hidden underbelly of American society.
And yet, with Chinatown, Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans took all of those familiar elements and used them to create one of the greatest films ever made.
Why is Chinatown such a great film?
Some of the credit has to go to Jack Nicholson who, in the role of Jake Gittes, gives perhaps his best performance. As I mentioned above, Gittes is, in many ways, a stock character but Nicholson brings so much nuance and depth to the role that it doesn’t matter. Nicholson’s trademark cynicism and sarcasm are both to be found here but he also brings a cocky recklessness to the role. Gittes is such a charismatic and likable hero and so confident in himself that it makes the film’s ending all the more shocking.
As good as Nicholson is, he’s matched at every turn by John Huston’s Noah Cross. Noah Cross is one of the most vile characters to ever appear on-screen, which is why Huston’s rather courtly performance is all the more disturbing. When Gittes confronts Noah about the worst of his many crimes, Cross simply responds that a man is never sure what he’s capable of until he does it. Huston delivery of the lines leave us with little doubt that Noah believes every word of what he’s just said.
In the end, though, most of the credit has to go to Roman Polanski’s direction and Robert Towne’s script. Towne’s script provides a genuinely challenging and thought-provoking mystery, while Polanski’s stylish direction keeps the view continually off-balance and unsure of who is telling the truth. Reportedly, Polanski and Towne had a contentious relationship, with Polanski changing the ending of Towne’s script to make the film much more downbeat. In the end, Polanski made the right choice. The film ends the only way that it possibly could.
Or, to quote the famous line: “It’s Chinatown.”
Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia
- Executive Action
- Winter Kills
- Interview With The Assassin
- The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
- Beyond The Doors
- Three Days of the Condor
- They Saved Hitler’s Brain
- The Intruder
- Police, Adjective
- Burn After Reading
- Quiz Show
- Flying Blind
- God Told Me To
- Wag the Dog
- Scream and Scream Again
- Capricorn One
- Seven Days In May
- Broken City
- Pickup on South Street
- The Informer