No wonder people think of this as the holy grail of film noir.
Chinatown is about a former cop-turned-private eye in 1930s L.A. who finds his reputation on the line and a lawsuit on his hands after being set up by a dame posing as the wife of an unpopular engineer for the Department of Water and Power. As he looks into who played him for a fool and why, he gets involved with the actual wife of the said engineer and starts to unravel a high-ranking power scheme filled with murder, lies and deceit that could leave him with a bullet in the brain if he keeps on digging.
The first time I watched this was for a film class back in college, and like a dumbass, I thought I could give this movie my full attention while simultaneously keeping tabs on the Halo match my roommates were playing on the other TV. After seeing it again recently and managing to barely follow along without anything whatsoever to distract me, I don’t know whether to get tested for ADD or just watch this another five times until I’ve got it all straight. Out of sheer laziness, I think I’ll gonna go with the latter and continue to spend that Ritalin money on Pixy Stix.
Now, by and large, this movie seems to be considered a thing of legend in Hollywood circles, especially when it comes to the screenwriters in the room who wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice a goat in the hopes of being able to pen something like this on their first go. But the good thing about all this praise is that it’s actually deserved on every front and it ends up being one of those movies that’s so damn refined it may very well make you feel like an idiot.
So Robert Towne’s had a number of high points in his career as the writer behind Heaven Can Wait, The Last Detail and a handful of others that oughta’ make you remember the name, but when you hold them all up to this, you might as well be comparing chalk and cheese. It’s an old school film noir that’s as smart as it is complex, it’s entirely unforgiving to the casual moviegoer and the only way you’re gonna get anything out of it is if you don’t miss a word. And I dig that, because as confusing as it can get, it’s equally rewarding and it doesn’t leave you dumbfounded, it makes you want to get it.
The weird thing about it, at least in my case, is that I’m not all too crazy about stories that have organizations as their villains. I guess I’m just thinking about the evil pharmaceutical companies that were behind everything in The Fugitive and The Constant Gardener, but the reason Towne makes the whole Water and Power thing work amidst the backdrop of a California drought is the way he keeps unraveling it and spins his story in a very character-focused direction that you never see coming. There’s still your fair share of legal corruption that only gets harder and harder to comprehend with each new double-crossing of the Cali public, but the real heart of darkness comes in a much different and more universally jaw-dropping form that would be damn hard to miss even if you get lost in the details. In short: crazy stuff.
Look, the dialogue is great, the characters are great, and the story is both an ugly and captivating riff about the futility of justice in a society controlled by the criminals, but the biggest strength is that it’s just masterfully put together. We’re only as much in the loop as our detective of the hour is, and with each new clue he figures out, the more we want to see him pursue it to the end and follow the breadcrumbs so we can finally be out of the dark on everything that’s going on.
Nor does it hurt that Roman Polanski (who also gave himself a great little role here) does a hell of a job moving it along and making it look good. Very similar in structure to The Ghost Writer (shows how much I know about both film noir and Polanski) and that right there is a good thing. And if it weren’t for him we would have gotten stuck with a way different ending, and that would have sucked royally. Really though, I have no idea how he got away with that finale, but it kinda makes the movie.
And then there’s Jack Nicholson who’s a total badass (as usual) as private eye J.J. Gittes. Dude is just a smooth operator who doesn’t mince words and doesn’t hide his head in the sand in the wake of being publicly humiliated, but the coolest thing about him is that he’s as sharp as every other aspect of the script that created him, his bag of tricks are bottomless and it’s awesome to watch him when he’s up against the ropes. It’s not on par with R.P. McMurphy or anything, but even the worst Nicholson role is one hell of a role by any standard, especially when it’s young Nicholson.
Faye Dunaway is also great as the Water and Power guy’s real wife/Gittes’ employer of sorts/the girl with all the answers, Evelyn Mulwray. Gal’s a complicated woman and something to watch her dynamic with Gittes from beginning to end. Also loved John Huston as her father/husband’s business partner, Noah Cross. Can’t exactly say anything about Cross without giving anything away, but what a chilling performance.
If you’re looking for mindless escapism, you have hit a dead end with Chinatown. If you’re interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, you won’t be disappointed as long as you keep your ears open. It’s a challenging movie alright, one of those things you could watch a hundred times, write a doctorate on and still feel like you’re not doing it justice, and that’s not only a testament to the efforts of everyone that was involved in making this, but also to the way it serves as a beacon of sorts for movies that have faith in their audience as intelligent moviegoing folk. If I had a greater knowledge of the genre and if had seen it a hundred times, I might know what the hell I was talking about, but for my first legitimate sit-down, there’s still a whole effing lot to appreciate. It’s Hollywood heavyweights making an (ultimately) very un-Hollywood movie, that’s exactly what I like most about it and that’s exactly what makes it a classic.
If The Godfather: Part II hadn’t come out the same year, I’m thinking this would have ran away with far more Oscars that it did. And if it were up to me, it totally would have, but that’s a discussion for another review…