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Chinatown (1974)

January 12, 2011

9/10 Nosey People

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 WaitThe 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…

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2011 11:30 am

    The twists and turns just come all over the place in this story, and it works so well. Also, may I not forget the famous line, that ends the film out so perfectly. Great review, of a great classic my friend!

    • January 12, 2011 12:19 pm

      Thanks, man. Hard to shake that last line once you backtrack to Gittes’ convo with Mulwray in bed. Devastating.

  2. January 12, 2011 1:41 pm

    This film is flawless, I tell you, flawless. Your 9/10 is an abomination, an unforgivable sin! There is absolutely nothing you can nitpick with this film. Trust me, I tried!

    Okay, so maybe that’s a bit excessive, because you did like it a lot and, like you said, it doesn’t disappoint. In my mind, it’s the perfect American film. Yes, even better than Citizen Kane. Everything is pitch perfect, creating one of the most memorable moods and crafting the plot into a fantastic conclusion.

    • January 12, 2011 2:03 pm

      hahahaha. i am beside myself with shame.

      yeah, i think a lot of people feel that way about this movie, and I’m not gonna be the one to argue otherwise. i don’t know if it’s better than Kane though, man. got a soft spot for that one.

      • January 12, 2011 7:12 pm

        I think I enjoy Citizen Kane a bit more. Both are top tier films for me but I think there are a few technical errors in Kane. Still, both are probably top 10 films for me.

      • January 13, 2011 12:25 pm

        Worthy of any Top Ten list IMHO.

  3. January 12, 2011 1:55 pm

    This is the Polanksi film everyone tells me I should check out. I wasn’t blown away by Ghost Writer but this one looks eons better.

    • January 12, 2011 2:06 pm

      Yeah, I’d say this is as good a place to start as any, but I do really want to see The Pianist again, haven’t seen that since it was in theaters. And while I wasn’t blown away by The Ghost Writer either, that movie grew on me a lot the more I thought about it. Would probably bump it up from a 7 to an 8 now, very similar in structure to Chinatown.

  4. January 12, 2011 2:06 pm

    Haha, this is getting a little eerie. Your last two reviews have been movies that I watched for the first time just recently. I will be a little creeped out if your next review is for Amelie (just watched that last night). 😛

    Great review though. This is an amazing film, can’t believe it took me so long to watch it. Jack Nicholson is absolutely phenomenal.

    By the way, not sure if you saw the message I posted in my blog, but your comment on my 1001 Video Games review somehow got lumped in with spam and I accidentally deleted it. I am curious to hear what you thought of the book.

    • January 12, 2011 2:14 pm

      haha. Amelie’s been on the top of my list for a while now as one I need to re-watch again and review. amazing movie, but don’t worry, that ain’t comin’ any time soon.

      and thanks! does seem to be one of those movies that take people a while to get around to but ends up knocking their socks off when they finally do. awesome stuff.

      and as for the 1001 Video Games book, I was flipping through it at Urban Outfitters the other week and was pretty surprised that it even existed. all those GTA games and Rock Band/Guitar Hero games are ridiculous, especially since Ico isn’t even included. if the book had come out 25 years from now or something, it would be cool, but it doesn’t even seem like there are 1001 games worth playing, i think you’d be hard-pressed to actually find 101 games that any gamer would *have to play* before they die. cool idea, but it seems pretty stupid against the 1001 books/movies/albums/beers books.

      that is all. no worries about the spam box, happens to me too, man.

      • January 12, 2011 2:27 pm

        Thanks man, I don’t even get how these spammers are able to find my blog and post random BS comments on it. For whatever reason, my Grizzly Man review gets the most spam, too. So weird.

        But yeah, totally agree with you about the book. You could really tell the writers were getting desperate near the end by throwing in so many mediocre games and re-hashed sequels. I think it would have been much better to cut the book in half and do 500 games. Still lots to work with, but definitely more reasonable.

  5. January 13, 2011 8:46 am

    I didnt have a clue what the heck was going on but Chinatown is great. sign of a good movie

    • January 13, 2011 12:31 pm

      hahaha. had the same reaction the first time i semi-saw it. great stuff indeed.

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