Let’s Talk About… ’Chinatown’ (1974)

Film #74 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Chinatown is Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir classic starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.  Often hailed as one of the best examples of the crime/film noir genre, Chinatown was the last movie that Polanski would make in the United States.  Though the film is completely fictitious, it is partially inspired by the early 20th century construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the related battles over water and land rights, and a few of the personalities involved.

The film follows private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is initially hired by Evelyn Mulwray to find out if her husband (Darrell Zwerling) is having an affair.  After Gittes photographs him with an unknown woman, it is revealed that her husband is Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power, and that the woman who hired Gittes is not really Mulwray’s wife.  The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) pays Gittes a visit and threatens a lawsuit.  Shortly thereafter Hollis Mulwray is found dead.  Gittes becomes embroiled in a conflict between the City of Los Angeles and local landowners over property rights and the local water supply.  The mystery deepens further when Gittes discovers that Hollis Mulwray was once the business partner of Evelyn Mulwray’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston in a subtly menacing performance), and that Mr. Cross wants Gittes to track down Hollis Mulwray’s mistress.

The film works very well as an exercise in neo-noir.  It adheres to many of the traditional tropes and situations of the noir drama, but its execution elevates it the above more average examples of the genre.  As in most noir films, there are twists and turns, seemingly unconnected plot threads that end up converging, and unexpected revelations in the third act.  One thing Polanski was determined to do was to deliver an ending that subverted the expectation that the “good guys” would come out on top in a traditional way.

The lead performances are very strong.  I would consider Chinatown to be one of Jack Nicholson’s best roles.  Once an actor establishes himself in film, they often end up turning in performances that are very similar to their public persona.  At the very least, it is harder for them to disappear inside a role.  I would suggest that Nicholson is one of those actors.  This is one of my favorite performances by Nicholson for the simple reason that he does not seem to be “playing himself.”  Gittes has a personality all his own, separate from the actor portraying him.  Nicholson seems to gravitate toward characters who have big personalities, but his performance here is measured and the picture is better for it.  Though Gittes is in many ways a typical noir gumshoe, Nicholson invests him with a unique personality and style.

Faye Dunaway excels in her role as Evelyn Mulwray, providing the character with both strength and vulnerability.  Early in the film, Evelyn seems to be the typical femme fatale-type character, but in one of the ways in which Polanski puts his own stamp on the genre, she ends up arguably being the character with the purest motives.

Technically, the film looks great.  Shots are composed beautifully and the film does a great job of evoking 1930’s Los Angeles.  Polanski’s direction propels the audience through the narrative from Gittes’ point of view and things are revealed to the viewer at the same time they are revealed to Gittes.  This leads to a shocking third act revelation about the relationship between Evelyn Mulwray and her husband’s “mistress.”

 Chinatown was both a critical and financial success.  The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress.  Ultimately, it won for Best Original Screenplay.  Made on a budget of six million dollars, Chinatown ultimately earned $29 million at the box office.

The film was to be the first in a trilogy, but it took nearly two decades to make the follow-up.  After The Two Jakes (1990) received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office, plans for a third film were cancelled.