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Chinatown
Year:
1974
Country:
USA
Genre:
Crime, Drama, Thriller, Mystery
IMDB rating:
8.3
Director:
Roman Polanski
Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
John Huston as Noah Cross
Perry Lopez as Escobar
John Hillerman as Yelburton
Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray
Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions
Roy Jenson as Mulvihill
Roman Polanski as Man with Knife
Richard Bakalyan as Loach (as Dick Bakalyan)
Joe Mantell as Walsh
Bruce Glover as Duffy
Nandu Hinds as Sophie
James O'Rear as Lawyer
Storyline: JJ 'Jake' Gittes is a private detective who seems to specialize in matrimonial cases. He is hired by Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city's water supply system, of having an affair. Gittes does what he does best and photographs him with a young girl but in the ensuing scandal, it seems he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray. When Mr. Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into a complex web of deceit involving murder, incest and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply.
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Reviews
a classic film noir from the '70s
The moment you see those opening credits in monochrome brown-sepia, you know you are in for a treat. This is a film by someone steeped in the tradition of the best film noir, and though not a style one associates with Polanski, his sense of drama and of pacing, and his painstaking care to make every shot add to the overall atmosphere, is perfectly suited. Though lacking the distinctive low viewpoints, close-ups and heavy shadows of traditional film noir, this is one of the few later films which manage perfectly to capture the atmosphere and the understated tension of the genre.

The writing and the acting, too, is straight out of the best tradition of film noir. Robert Towne's excellent Oscar-winning script, written with Jack Nicholson in mind for the central character of LA private detective J.J.Gittes, is written entirely from Gittes' perspective (I don't believe there's a single scene in which he doesn't figure). If Bogart was the epitome of Chandler's Marlowe in the 40's, then Nicholson is a worthy successor, and I wonder whether Towne ever considered writing another screenplay around the same character. When I first saw this film when it came out, I hadn't seen Nicholson before, and I remember being just blown away (I didn't see Easy Rider until a couple of years later). Faye Dunaway and the superbly cast John Huston complete the triangle, and we only discover their relative roles in the mystery as Gittes gradually pieces the complex jigsaw together, which of course is just how it should be. The supporting actors are more than adequate, secondary to the story but never detracting from it, with Perry Lopez doing a great job as the struggling but confident lieutenant (who of course is a former colleague of Gittes).

But for me, Polanski himself is the star of this film (and I don't mean his nice little cameo part). I'm glad he wasn't tempted to shoot in black-and-white, though it wouldn't have been out of place -- the consistently washed-out colour so well delivers the sense of the heat and the desert (only the blue of the ocean and the bright lights of Chinatown itself stand out), and his choice of shot, variety of speed, and attention to detail never distract the viewer, nor detract from the acting and the unfolding tale. It's only after the film is over, when you sit back in admiration, that you realise there really wasn't a single moment when you were impatient to move on, or lost track of the plot, or felt a wrong note had been hit. I regard this, along with his recent superb version of Oliver Twist, to be his best works. And that's not an easy choice to make.
2010-11-21
The Enduring Power Of Evil And Corruption
"Chinatown" begins in a deceptively straightforward manner but soon develops into a complex mystery which involves deception, murder and corruption. The action is set in drought stricken L.A. during the 1930s and the stylish way in which the atmosphere and look of the period are evoked is just one of the many strengths of this exceptional movie. Ironically, its story, which conveys such a great sense of time and place, actually deals with various forms of evil that are utterly timeless and leads to a grim denouement in which evil is seen to prevail and corruption continues unabated. The sheer power and reality of this conclusion is, no doubt, one of the elements that makes "Chinatown" so memorable and contributes so strongly to its enduring appeal.

Having been hired by a client who presented herself as Mrs Evelyn Mulwray, private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) tails Mr Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) who's suspected of being involved in an adulterous relationship and photographs him with his young mistress. When the photos appear in the newspapers, a little while later, Mr Mulwray (who's the Chief Engineer in the L.A. Water and Power Department) finds that his reputation is damaged and when the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up at Gittes' office and threatens him with a lawsuit, he becomes determined to find out who was behind the scheme to use him to discredit Mulwray.

Mulwray is found dead and is believed to have drowned but Gittes suspects that he's been murdered. The investigation he then embarks on, leads to the discovery of a conspiracy to use phony names and the city's water supply to manipulate land prices in the northwest valley. A number of surprising complications also then come to light in the relationships between Evelyn, her husband, her daughter and her father who's a wealthy and seriously corrupt businessman called Noah Cross (John Huston).

When the police begin to suspect that Evelyn may have been involved in Mulwray's murder, Gittes tries to protect her and her daughter by arranging a means of escape for them, but things don't go according to plan.

Roman Polanski directs "Chinatown" with great skill and some moments of conspicuous flair and the pace of the movie is perfect for the period in which it's set and the nature of its characters. It's exceptionally well written by Oscar winning Robert Towne who times the various developments to perfection and the technique of putting the audience in Gittes' shoes makes the whole journey a riveting experience.

Jack Nicholson successfully balances Gittes' cynicism, glibness and sarcasm with his sensitive side in a portrayal which is extremely effective and, by his standards, rather reined in. Faye Dunaway is wonderfully inscrutable as a woman who turns out to be much more vulnerable and damaged than one first suspects and John Huston brings immense power to his role as an incredibly evil and dangerous villain who tries to rationalise his own depravity by suggesting that it's merely the result of unfortunate circumstances.

Gittes' experience of working in Chinatown before he became a private eye taught him that in that area, you can't always tell what's going on and that trying to help someone could actually wind up with them suffering as a consequence. Bearing in mind what Gittes learns and feels at the end of this movie, the metaphorical significance of Chinatown is self-evident.
2012-03-07
A Synthesis of Cinematic Class...A Film Firing on All Cylinders
As Perfect as a Motion Picture can be, "Chinatown" is considered a Masterpiece in "Critics" Circles and Public Opinion Decidedly Doesn't Differ much.

It's one of those Films where all the Ingredients that make up a Movie Synthesize in a Symmetric Conglomerate of Cinematic Class.

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (winning only 1, Best Original Screenplay) the Movie was a Bono-Fide Hit with Critics but the Public took a while to Warm Up to its Charms. The Final Box-Office Toll for the Year...it came in 15th.

However, since then it is Fondled Over by Fans and Film Historians as an Object of Affection. Movie Making at its Best. A Flawless Film that is Firing on All Cylinders. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and a Great Supporting Cast Deliver the Robert Towne Script Effortlessly.

Bathed in a Sun-Baked Glow of Burnt Brown and Yellow with Highlights of Bright Red/Orange, the Cinematography of John Alonzo was an Attractive Anomaly for its Time.

Most Films of the Era were Shot in Stark, Gritty, Realism in Sync with a Postmodern Template and Hays-Code Busted, Unfettered, No Frills Format.

Alonzo's "Chinatown" is Dreamy as it Lights the "Nightmarish" Underbelly of Evil Displayed by the "Money Men" and Forgers that gave Birth to Los Angeles. It's Pulpish Tonality adds a Lush Layer to the Lured.

Jerry Goldsmith's Haunting Score is also Memorable in its Minimalism of Horn and Single Note Piano. Goldsmith was brought in at the Last Minute and Composed the Music in 9 Days.

Director Roman Polanski Considers this His Second Best Film after "The Pianist" (2002). Most Agree that the Maestro of "Chinatown" was Surely on Top of His Game with this Homage to Film-Noir where He took Chances with Conventions, Filming in Glorious Color, No Voice Over Narration, and Wide Screen for Example.

The Film has many Fascinations and Stands Up to Repeated Viewings. It's a Feast of Film-Making Techniques that, in fact, may Require Repeated Viewing to Fully Appreciate.
2017-11-29
Past and Future Tense
***User reviewer Sergio_Falco ("What to say?", Sergio_Falco from Australia, May 2012) has an interesting commentary that mentions the layers of evil. Mr Ghostface ("A wonderful, classic film", Mr Ghostface from London, England, 8 October 1999) has good background info.***

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski), a homage to Film noir, is one of the world's great film treasures. Many reviewers describe it as one of the elite film noirs. (I would disqualify it for not belonging to the genre well enough.) "Chinatown" is often used as curriculum in film schools. This is high art, and is particularly great fun to view it on the big screen when the opportunity exists.

Robert Towne is credited with the original screenplay. Although it was inspired by the water wars that occurred in LA in the early twentieth century, it is set decades later (1937). The director, Roman Polanski, changed Towne's desired ending. The plot meanders and has holes, but there isn't a dull scene. The entire cast functions very well. Polanski makes a director's cameo that rivals any other. The supporting characters fit in effortlessly. (My favorite is John Hillerman as Yelburton.)

The principal three characters are all at a high level. I am fond of Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulray; same with John Houston as Noah Cross. However, Jack Nicholson is masterful as J. J. Gittes. Towne wrote the screenplay for Nicholson, and Gittes appears in every scene. Nicholson's Gittes is a smart, acerbic, dogged private investigator who breaks rules without hesitation while making his share of blunders. He is also a magnet (i.e., almost always the center of attention).

The acid-tongued Gittes is haunted by an event that is never revealed to the audience. It occurred when he was a beat cop in Chinatown. While Gittes is irked with civil servants generally (e.g., the man at the Hall of Records), he has obvious contempt for his former police colleagues. There seems to be a connection between the intensity of Gittes's loathing of each cop with that character's contribution to the conclusion. So, there's no need for us to know what happened in Chinatown previously because it is the same destination as the future.

Personally, I can't respect Towne's decision to have Gittes slapping Evelyn around before she reveals her secret. I don't think it is very challenging for a filmmaker to show a stronger man beating up a woman. On an unrelated note, it is also kind of hilarious to imagine people nonchalantly smoking everywhere in 1937, including government offices.

(BTW, "Chinatown" repeats the phrase, "as little as possible." This is in response to the question, "what did you do there?" This line can be explained by making what today is likely construed as a racist statement: A white policeman working Chinatown will find the locals so inscrutable it is impossible to know whether law enforcement is causing or preventing a crime. So, the beat cops do the least amount of policing that is required of them.)

Above all else, "Chinatown" is dazzling because of Polanski's vision. He uses the entire frame, and is conveying point of view. (My favorite image is probably the final one of Yelburton; Gittes suggests he is due for a great future and it appears the reverse is in store.) Polanski is expert level at varying the size and position of Gittes, while employing a very precise focal length. (It is worth noticing when the background is blurry.)

Polanski also employs a visual leitmotif. He frequently shoots Gittes from the back while Gittes is spying on someone else. The frequency of watching Gittes from behind, with Gittes seemingly making no effort to be discrete, makes the audience feel like a voyeur. Considering the film's pivotal surprise, the voyeur feeling takes us closer to experiencing the sordid details.

"Chinatown" is too good to miss. Cinephiles are encouraged to head over to the nearest revival theater to see it again, steering clear of whatever diminutive, maniacal, switchblade-bearing directors that are encountered.
2014-06-18
The most perfect movie ever made
I've never given a movie 10 before. But I just watched Chinatown tonight for maybe the 20th time, and I think it is the most perfect movie ever made. In Polanski's masterpiece of disillusion, nothing and nobody is what they seem. Names are false, motives are false or never understood. Gittes, who at first seems like a sleazeball, is in fact a white knight seeking after truth. The cool blonde is anything but. Other film makers would pull close-ups on the clues that are dropped in plain view throughout the movie, but with Polanski, they are there but you just don't see them, any more than Gittes, until it all comes together at the end. A truly wonderful movie that only gets better with repeated viewing
2008-05-02
Stylish and intriguing
Stylish and intriguing.

Los Angeles in the early-1930s. A private detective, JJ Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), is hired by a woman to investigate her husband, as she suspects he is having an affair. Her husband, Hollis Mulwray, is the chief water engineer for the city of Los Angeles. Soon after Gittes delivers the photos that seem to confirm her suspicions, he meets the real wife of the man. Intrigued, Gittes investigates further. Then Mr Mulwray turns up dead...

A clever, slow-burning thriller from director Roman Polanski. Information is gained slowly, heightening the intrigue. Many red herrings, and detours. Nothing is obvious. To make things even more complex, there's not just one plot line in play...

Very film noir like in its feel. You could easily see Humphrey Bogart as Gittes...

Good work by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in the leading roles. Good support from John Huston.

Not perfect though. The movie loses momentum in the last third or so, focusing on a lesser plot and amplifying the detour by an extended wild goosechase. Ultimately this sub-plot is necessary, to an extent, but it needn't have had so much time devoted to it. Just when the movie was ready to kick up a gear, having idled along previously, it went sideways rather than forward.
2016-02-08
Another World
Spoilers herein.

Polanski is worth watching no matter what he does. Sometimes, the film is relatively free of context, like the nearly perfect `Ninth Gate.' But watching those take work because you have to cocreate the world.

Sometimes the film is set in the context of a genre where the metanarrative is about how it sets within the genre. `Rosemary's Baby' was great because it played with everything that came before, adding great portions of architectural evil and fey vulnerability.

Noir revolutionized film. The detective was our representative in the story, unravelling the order of the world. Noir turned that on its head, directly referencing what came before. The noir detective was still our avatar but was swept up in the world he was trying to understand. Everything happens TO him, not around him.

Now Polanski does a Welles and Nicholson does a Brando. Both are techniques of self-commentary at the same time as commenting on the genre. Both are both IN the films and OF film, but until `Chinatown' they had never been attempted at the same time. This film changed the world. Huston was along for the ride.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 4: Worth watching.
2003-02-19
Both a mystery and tragedy; an incredible film
Chinatown - A

What a depressing ending! But it's the ending that elevated the film's status to a masterpiece in my eyes. It started out like a simple detective story, but the plot kept turning, and it's anything but simple or conventional. Jack Nicholson gave one of the best performances of his career, and we kept finding out more and more about Faye Dunaway's character, eventually knowing, shockingly to me, why she was both fond and afraid of intimacy. No line in the script is wasted. The cinematography painted a great picture of L.A., reminding me of Collateral, and the music score is fantastic as well. It is a real thriller full of mystery, kept me guessing all the time, but also a real tragedy in a personal level. I feel bad Chinatown had to compete with Godfather II in the same year. It deserves more wins out of its 11 Academy nominations.
2004-11-14
Not for me, but if you're into 70s and noir, you'll really like it
Chinatown is supposedly one of the best films of all time and of the 70s. Maybe it is, but it's not for me. You really need to have a taste for 70s filmmaking and noir to appreciate this in its' fullest. I grew up in the 80s and 90s and always had a tough time praising movies of the 70s.

The movie has plenty of good qualities such as the style, acting, intricate story lines, surprises, dialogue, and mystery. It's a good film, but I couldn't see all the universal praise it gets unless it's from people who grew up in the 60s or 70s.

I fell asleep on consecutive nights while trying to get through it and finally finished it on the third try. While it is interesting and very intriguing, it didn't necessarily "grip" me the way that a mystery/crime drama/thriller would be expected to. The most gripped I was during the whole movie came on my third try to finish it when Nicholson basically domestically abuses Mrs. Mulwray and she reveals something very disturbing. Shocks like this are always riveting, but I was more disturbed than impressed with the reveal. Maybe this was gratifyingly controversial and provocative for 1974? It didn't really work for me.

While the film has classic qualities, without a doubt, by the end, for all the light it had shown at times for me, it sort of dimmed down a few points and I'll settle for a solid 7/10. It's a classic crime drama story and film that I highly recommend for that genre's list of originals, but outside of the hype, which by now appears to be bandwagon, I don't see how it's considered one of the best movies of all time. Good, but not great. 7/10
2016-05-31
Jake Gittes, Right Up There With Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe
In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson gets one of his best roles, definitely in the top five as Jake Gittes, a throwback private eye to the forties of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Had Chinatown been made in the Forties Humphrey Bogart who played definitive versions of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would definitely have been cast in the role of Jake Gittes. Nicholson however is one worthy successor to Bogey.

Very little action takes place in Chinatown in Los Angeles and only some peripheral characters are oriental. What Chinatown is here is a metaphor for a place you don't want to go and a culture and way of life you cannot penetrate or understand. Back when Gittes was a cop he was stationed in Chinatown and always felt alien there. He couldn't do his job because he didn't understand the people.

Gittes goes back to Chinatown so to speak when he's hired by Diane Ladd to shadow her husband. It's the kind of peep job Nicholson is used to and he does. Later the husband turns up dead and it turns out Ladd was posing as the wife. The real wife Faye Dunaway shows up and threatens to sue him.

Nicholson keeps on digging and he comes up with a juicy political scandal involving a scheme to defraud essentially the whole city of Los Angeles with their water supply. But he comes up with far more than that involving Faye Dunaway's personal life.

The lead villain here is John Huston in probably his greatest role before the camera with only The Cardinal as a rival. Huston is Dunaway's father, a rich gazillionaire who can just about buy everything and everybody and usually does. But as it turns out he's far more malevolent than that, a truly terrifying evil soul.

Faye Dunaway does a great job playing a woman carrying one huge burden on her soul. Look for good performances by Perry Lopez as the dogged police lieutenant trying to keep everyone happy and Diane Ladd as the hapless fake Dunaway.

Chinatown is one timeless film and will be getting raves centuries from now.
2006-12-06
See Also
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