Many say that the 1970s were the last “great” decade of film. They may be on to something. Ranking among the best of those pictures would have to be 1974’s Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s moving, engaging and beautiful film noir that showcases Jack Nicholson at perhaps the pinnacle of his career.
Crime dramas often have a tendency to go on autopilot or settle for plot clichés. With Chinatown, though, Polanski — who made the film before he was charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl and fled the United States in 1977— reinvents the wheel with a thought-provoking story and delivers a masterpiece never to be forgotten.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown follows Jake Gittes (Nicholson), a private detective who specializes in matrimonial cases. As the film opens, Jake is hired by Evelyn Mulwray (so we think), a woman who suspects her husband Hollis is having an affair. He also happens to be the chief engineer of the powerful Los Angeles Department of Power and Water and the simple case of marital infidelity soon plunges Jake into a tidal wave of lies, murder and deception.
Written by Robert Towne, the plot, at first, appears impossible to solve. So many plot lines, characters with short screen time and dialogue consistently reverting back to Chinatown make Polanski’s film challenging, but never overwhelming.
Perhaps that reason alone is what makes Chinatown so special. We don’t get bogged down by the plot details we’re given, we simply embrace them. Great films feature an engrossing story that instantly grabs our attention and makes us care about the characters. When those great films conclude we are in awe of we’ve just witnessed. Chinatown does all of the above.
For those who did not grow up with Jack Nicholson (I did not), Chinatown is a good start to explore his body of work. My initial perception of Jack is the guy yelling on the sidelines of every home Lakers game or the devilish, sadistic character he played so well in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
Seeing the young Nicholson in Chinatown is revelatory. He’s the core, the emotional spine of the picture. We sense Jake’s hidden, though oh-so evident, pain throughout the film. What makes Nicholson performance great is that he plays Jake with sincerity, a trait that is not in fashion with modern-day actors. Today’s protagonists, predominately of the male gender, are stiff, lacking emotion and conviction.
In contrast, Nicholson’s Jake is a real character – he’s cynical, has an ego and most importantly has genuine feelings. We know this because Nicholson plays the character straight with nuance and life. Time and time again we hear talk about Chinatown, a place where everything goes and much is unsaid or never explained. We never quite understand Jake’s past or his feelings for others, we just know he has them.
Faye Dunaway, whose acclaimed work ranges from Bonnie and Clyde to Network, gives a brilliant performance too. Her character is a conundrum. Her performance is a joy to watch. And the late John Huston, who directed multiple acclaimed films such as The Maltese Falcon and Treasures of Sierra Madre, is creepy and enigmatic as Noah Cross. As good as Huston and Dunaway are, though, they still come second hand to Nicholson’s stroke of brilliance as Gittes.
The film looks great too. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo does a seamless job with the look of the film. He captures the spirit of L.A. and the dark, mysterious undertones that lies within Chinatown. And Jerry Goldsmith’s score is beautiful and memorable as it adds mystery and tenderness to every scene.
Simply put Chinatown is a tour de force: masterful acting, breathtaking cinematography, and an engrossing plot that leaves you in awe. Sure, the film’s central mystery will likely never be solved, but sometimes, just sometimes, imagining the multiple outcomes is far more fulfilling.
And oh how in awe I was.
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