Vic’s Classics – “Chinatown” (1974) Review



Directed by Roman Polanksi

10 Switchblades out of 10

What’s it About?

The amazing movie writer, Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Mission Impossible and The Two Jakes) provided the screenplay for this incredible neo – noir masterpiece named “Chinatown” which was directed by the young auteur Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Frantic and The Tenant) in 1974.

By Vic

“Chinatown”  was made and released by Paramount Pictures. In 1971 Producer Robert Evans thought that Towne had what it takes to write an adaptation of The Great Gatsby but Towne opted instead to write Chinatown instead and Evans approved. Luckily for us us Evans was right in letting Towne do his thing because Chinatown is one of the most significant and important films ever made.

It features an incredibly multi-layered story that is dark and elegant. Performances from all involved are stunning and real plus the film boosts an imaginative score and perfect direction that surpasses other noir thrillers of it’s ilk. Towne used for his inspiration the history of the infamous “Water Wars” that took place in California in the 1920′s and earlier.

What took place then involved land and water rights which spurred some nasty contention politically and socially to all involved. Towne manages to weave a very intriguing story which runs the gamut of what a very real noir thriller should be about. Murder, deceit and loss. Using these elements, Towne propels us into some very terrifying territory that immerses us in an ethereal universe that Polanksi is very eager to explore and exploit.

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Chinatown obviously has Jack Nicholson and Polanski teaming up to deliver the goods here. Nicholson plays JJ “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator that is hired by the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway of Network fame) to spy and gather info on her cheating husband Hollis who is the director of the Water and Power department. While tailing and watching Hollis, things don’t seem to add up. It seems that his client is not who she said she was and Mr Mulwray’s supposed mistress is the real Mrs Mulwray.

Seems like Gittes was set up and to add insult to injury Gittes doesn’t get around to questioning Mulwray about his disapproval to a new water reservoir as it seems he was murdered having been found with water in his lungs.

Polanksi brilliantly layers some classic whodunnit mystique and mystery here. Gittes then gets another call from an Ida Sessions who actually is an actress hired to play Mrs Mulwray. Gittes then runs afoul of some hardcore chaps from Water and Power having been a bit too anxious to blow the whistle on what is going on.

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In an intense moment, Gittes gets his nose slashed open with a switchblade by the Water and Power’s security director’s henchman played by Polanksi himself. Towne keeps the intrigue moving forward and Gittes finds out that Mulwray’s husband was actually a partner with her father, Noah Cross (Played by the brilliant actor/director John Huston). Cross offers Gittes some extra scratch for finding Mulwray’s mistress.

Mulwray and Jake eventually pool their resources and Evelyn warns Jake that her father is a dangerous man and should never be crossed or be pitteded against. They further discover that some real estate deals are being done with out the knowledge of the residents of Mar-Vista Inn,  a retirement home. They suspect that Mr Mulwray was killed off because of some information regarding irrigation issues and knew too much. Towne and Polanski further deepen the mystery and the second guessing with deft skill and very real authenticity. It is why this film works on so many levels.

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It unfolds wonderfully and with every frame that passes the incredible canvas that Polanksi, Nicholson and Towne paint on is stunning to behold as it is filled with foreshadowing, menace and art. Many film critics and film historians adamantly agree that the 1970′s was the last great decade for films of this type. I agree somewhat but LA Confidential and Blade Runner make that a bit moot for me, but I digress.

Chinatown is an amazing movie to get lost in. It is like peering through a misty, multi-colored veil and some things are clear and some things are not. It can be easily said that a film of this stature can never be made today. Many have tried. Even Nicholson tried going to the well a second time with “The Two Jakes” but fell way short of capturing the tone and style of Polanski’s film. He gave it a good shot though.

Polaski creates a world where every gesture and movement of his camera and actors is a revelation and an enigma. This makes Chinatown a film to revisit and experience over and over again provoking the viewer into reaching different conclusions every time. Many still may view the film as high art and Polanski is indeed an influential movie director but even he was not restricted to tying up all the loose ends and leaving the audience with things to talk about.

Nicholson excels as Gittes and he is real, aloof and even at times charming always taking the material seriously and taking Polanski’s direction to heart. He and Huston deliver some of the best banter between two men with alterior motives ever shot and John Alonzo’s (Scarface and Star Trek Generations) work here as the DP is astounding.

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The original DP Stanley Cortez (Night of the Hunter) was let go because of some artistic differences. Polanski wanted a natural feel and look to Chinatown. Cortez managed to get some frames he shot in though and they match Alonzo’s palette very well. And what a palette it is. Chinatown on a technical level is why I love the film but the drama is just a prevalent.

It plays out very slowly and Polanski revels in showing us mundane things that may or may not mean anything. Dunaway is a force of nature and her life un-spools and unfolds like the best of Greek tragedies. She immediately is commanding, very sophisticated all the while hiding a deep pain that by the film’s end is unbearable to watch. Thus is the power of Townes’s story.

Chinatown made Jack Nicholson a star and Towne’s screenplay is studied to the Nth degree in some film schools. It is much deserved. Polanksi’s ending was prolific as well and there is no “Happy Ending” here adding to the mystique and legacy of the film. A deep, dark and moving piece of work, Chinatown is a film that should always be studied, dissected, discussed and appreciated on all levels. Everyone has a different opinion, viewpoint and interpretation and they all may be right.

The most astute and assured thing about Chinatown, though, is that it will stand the test of time. Highly recommended!

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  1. Great review Vic, I haven’t seen this. Only Polanski movie I have seen is Rosemary’s Baby. Not a fan of his based off his off camera incident. So I tend to,avoid his work due to that.

    • Glad you liked it, Bill. One of my all time favorite screenplays and performances from Nicholson and Polanski’s palette and direction raised the bar so high!

      I appreciate you stopping by! Thanks!

      • Indeed, Vic! So sad they did that stupid THE TWO JAKES sequel. After ten minutes, I had to abandon that nightmare.

      • I actually used to own The Two Jakes on Laserdisc. I had bought it solely on the fact that it was a Chinatown sequel. I hadn’t even seen it before I purchased it. Boy, what a letdown. I believe I watched it only once.

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