You can’t forget about it. It’s Chinatown.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, et al…
Director: Roman Polanski
Runtime: 130 minutes
Plot: Jack Nicholson plays a private detective – hired to find and expose an adulterer – finds himself in a web of lies, corruption and murder.
Chinatown is the quintessential neo-noir, indeed, it is the quintessential noir. In Chinatown we get a story of the 1970s set in the 1930s, it’s a depressing ride, one you may not be so sure of throughout, but I believe everybody needs to see this film.
The narrative is slow and slightly complicated (as a noir should be), with a large amount of the film being dialogue – perhaps too much for some. Despite its slow pace, however Chinatown is a joy to watch unfold, with the ending in particular being one of the greatest I have ever seen (no spoilers from me though). To see everything fall masterfully into place, unfolding into a particularly grim view of the American system, Chinatown really is in a league of its own in my eyes – no film quite manages to catch the downbeat quite as masterfully as this.
Robert Towne’s script is fantastic (if slightly flawed), and Polanski’s vision of the script is even better. Like all good noirs, Chinatown is a work of art, but this time, in colour. The use of a saturated colour palette in the film was a masterstroke of production design – it gives the film an old-fashioned feel and makes the disturbing plot jump out even more.
The impeccable design of the film is akin to that of Polanski’s earlier work Rosemary’s Baby (1968), as is the lasting effect. Chinatown is a film that stays with you long after the credits roll; it is more disturbing a second time through and shines even more as a true great of the cinematic form and art.
Acting in Chinatown is stunning, never before (or after) have I seen Jack Nicholson act as well as he did here; his portrayal of Jack Gittes is career defining. Indeed, the main three players of the film are spectacularly good, with Faye Dunaway’s fragile femme fatale (Evelyn Mulwray) at times almost stealing the show and John Huston’s antagonist role as Noah Cross is particularly grim – sickening at times (in the best ways imaginable). However, when the film moves focus away from interaction between the main three, it stutters. While none of the acting from the more minor cast is bad, it really pales in comparison to that of the core three (although Polanski’s turn as Man with Knife is enthralling). It may seem a silly quibble to have with the film, as films as long as this need more than three characters to stay interesting for the most part, but it’s just a bit of a shame that the rest of the cast were not quite up to the same standards – good, but not plaque good.
Beyond the impeccable cinematography and great acting, we have the music, which transports us lovingly into the golden era of the film noir. Music in Chinatown is really rather good, I do not normally pay much attention to the soundtrack (unless it is particularly bad), but Chinatown’s score is one of the best I have heard, and the fact there is a lot of the film played without music is one that impresses me.
Chinatown transports us back to the golden age of the film noir, only to horrify us at the end. It’s a film that sticks with you for many months, perhaps destroying your fragile little mind for good. Impeccably shot, scored and (for the most part) acted, the worst thing about Chinatown is its slow pace, but the pay-off more than makes up for it.
Chinatown demands to be seen by everyone, it’s a haunting, noir masterpiece.