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Chinatown 
Roman Polanski I 1974 I USA




An undisputed milestone in the film noir tradition, Roman Polanski's masterful Chinatown stands as a true screen classic. Chinatown is one of those movies that you immediately want to see again; it just leaves you astounded, fascinated. I, for one, could not help thinking about it long after I finished watching it  - it definitely stays with you. Its power to entrance the viewer and keep him thoroughly intrigued for two hours is as amazing as it is odd, because very few films actually can (or perhaps don't dare?) do that. Like Roger Ebert said in his review, "...the whole movie is a tour-de-force". I simply could not agree more.


The premise of Chinatown goes like this: Jack J Gittes, ex policeman of Chinatown in Los Angeles works now as a private detective. Evelyn Cross Mulwray hires him in order to find out if her husband, director of the water department, is having an affair with someone else. The investigator discovers the man with a young woman, but immediately things start to complicate: Evelyn is not in fact who she claimed to be, while her husband appears drowned in a canal. All these events take him on a dangerous and winding road, until finally it all comes to a memorable conclusion in the streets of... Chinatown.

Film noir truly began with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, in 1941. It was the film that created a whole new genre; menacing situations, cigarettes, darkness and shadows, priceless objects, guns, femmes fatales, betrayal and murder all formed part of film noir. Then came magnificent pieces of work such as The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, which not only were masterpieces by their own right, but also helped in constructing and expanding film noir with admirable delicacy. But Chinatown, which was released in 1974, did not just do what these earlier films did - it did much more. Not only did it completely push the boundaries by carrying film-noir to another frontier; it took risks, and plenty of them.

You see, Chinatown is no ordinary film. What starts as a simple detective story suddenly develops into something much more complicated, full of twists and turns, deceits, corruption, lies and half truths. Director Roman Polanski's subtle methods of storytelling are merely majestic; the story carefully unfolds, and the film is one of those rare cases in which we find out every single thing at the same moment that the main character does. Taking sensitivity, patience and time, Polanski unravels a story that gets all the more intricate and richer as the course of the film goes on. There merely is no denying that Polanski's direction is masterful; Chinatown is a picture that evokes a lost era, and as a result of this Polanski films it in the most elegant and classic of ways. But it is the stellar contributions that make Chinatown one of the greatest American films ever made.

Chinatown's Academy-Award winning screenplay was written by Robert Towne. It was loosely based on the events that took place during the river Owne scandal, in 1900, with which many corrupt cops from South Carolina became millionaires with the selling of land. The screenplay does not just prove to be arguably the greatest strength of the film -  it's the foundation of it. It's the very thing that holds the weight of all the other components with surprising finesse. The film is filled with characters we actually are interested in or care about, and Jack Gittes instantly wins our sympathy, as he's portrayed as a vulnerable and flawed hero. One cannot describe it in a few words; it's everything you've heard it is, and more: taut, thrilling, mysterious, sizzling, intense and very well-paced, it manages to illustrate an illusory world set in 1930s' Los Angeles full of malevolence and falsehoods.

The acting is top-notch. Jack Nicholson gives one of his finest performances ever, depicting private detective Gittes with amazing grace and fluidity -  whether he's expressing pain, anger or apprehension, he constantly remains extremely convincing. Faye Dunaway provides fine support as the worrying wife; she's a personage full of doubt and confusion, blackened by a dark past that she tries to erase out of her mind, and her chemistry with Nicholson is merely electrifying. As brief as though it may be, John Huston's performance is unique; his performance as the malicious and wealthy Noah Cross is simply, well, unforgettable.

The cinematography is exceptional; capturing barren landscapes of the sun-baked outskirts of Los Angeles, it gives us a sense of heat and dreading atmosphere. Jerry Goldsmith's score is as fine as it is suitable; it integrates perfectly with the film's scenes, with catchy Jazz piano and trumpet tunes, providing the film with a dreamy ambiance.

Despite being nominated to eleven Oscars, Chinatown only took home one: that of the aforementioned Best Screenplay. The other ten nominations were: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Cinematography (John A. Alonzo), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Original Dramatic Score (Jerry Goldsmith), Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. But of course, this was understandable, considering that it was under extreme competition from Coppolas' The Godfather Part II. Even though he did not win the Oscar, for Jack Nicholson Chinatown was the film that definitely consecrated him in Hollywood. Partly for gratitude and partly because of nostalgia, the actor slipped into Jack Gittes' shoes once again in 1990 to involve him in another investigation. The film was named The Two Jakes, which Nicholson directed apart from starring in it.

Perhaps Chinatown is the great movie it is because it's a film of two dimensions. It tells one story which suddenly splits into two layers and turns out to be a double-plot; that of the water plot and the incest plot. Although seemingly different at first glance, both plots are in truth related to each other. They're both matters about desire for power, greed and selfishness. The incest plot is blood-curdingly morbid (which partly is what irritated some viewers on its initial release, besides its "unnecessary" scenes of onscreen violence). As a result of this, the viewer is taken to places where he least expects to go and is shown the things he least expects to see. Chinatown is a picture that plays with the audiences' expectations, and excellently at that.
One of the most impressive sequences in the film was the infamous scene in which a small thug (an unpredictable cameo by Roman Polanski) cuts Gittes nose with a flick knife. Again, shortly before this occurs, we never expect to see our hero get done that, and in the end, we get much more he is not just savagely cut; we actually see it with our very eyes.

On the whole, Chinatown proves to be much more than a movie - it's a landmark in the history of cinema. Ever-engaging, superbly acted and phenomenally directed, Chinatown is a richly rewarding experience that has managed to successfully pass the test of time and still stand as one of the greatest films of all time. A sublime masterpiece which, apart from that, contains one of the bleakest, darkest (and finest) climaxes in film history, ending with the classic line, "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown"
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[96] 

Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004