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“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s arguably the most important line from arguably one of the most important film of the 1970s. It’s the last meaningful line of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, but I can begin a review of the film with it because it manages not to spoil the cataclysmic event that has just occurred while at the same it manages to encapsulate the mood and style of the film in two clipped sentences. Among movie types, and especially among lovers of great screenplays, few films are as iconic as Chinatown. Robert Towne’s script is often heralded as the single greatest screenplay of all time. For aspiring screenwriters, it is introduction to screenwriting 101. And for director Roman Polanski (Repulsion), it is usually cited as the crowning achievement of his career. Few films can live up to the hype that surrounds every facet of Chinatown. Not only does Chinatown live up to its own hype, it exceeds them to simply be one of the greatest American films of all time.

Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s first film after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate (as well as several family friends) at the hands of the Manson family (for more information on that terrible incident, I highly recommend Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime novel Helter Skelter). That’s an important piece of background information because the the senseless destruction in his personal life translates into one of cinema’s most evocative tales of despair, fatalism, and the darker realities of life. In fact, Robert Towne’s original screenplay was much lighter and Polanski made him change the ending to something much darker and tragic. Roman Polanski transforms the horrors of his own life into cinema’s starkest portrayal of inhumanity and simultaneously manages to deconstruct the entire film noir genre into its true, seedy building blocks.

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Robert Towne’s story for Chinatown is like marvelously constructed bit of modern architecture where a million tiny pieces keep this dizzying structure in place, but if you were to remove just one piece, the whole building would come crashing down. Jake Gittes (About Schmidt‘s Jack Nicholson) is a private detective specializing in catching spouses in moments of infidelity. A fastidiously dressed man, obsessed with his image, Jake is excellent at his job. In fact, it’s his talent for snooping into other people’s private lives that ends up getting him in trouble and tangled in a case that not only threatens his career but his very life. One day, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) appears in Jake’s office and asks him to see if her husband is having an affair. And thus, a tangled web of lies, deceit, and murder begins.

Working your way through the labyrinth of Chinatown’s script for your first time is one of a true cinephile’s great pleasures so I fret over spoiling too many aspects of the film. Let us throw down some basic building blocks then without revealing too much of what’s to come. Jake is great at what he does and it doesn’t take long before he catches Mr. Mulwray spending a day with a beautiful young girl. But, somebody steals his photos of the rendezvous and puts them in the paper. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) threatens to sue Jake for defaming her husband’s name but it isn’t long before Mr. Mulwray winds up dead in a reservoir. Jake wants to find out who set him and Mr. Mulwray up and along the way he stumbles into a web of public corruption more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

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I could harp on this for pages and pages and feel like I’ve already over-emphasized it, but Robert Towne’s screenplay is the real star of the film (though virtually every other facet of the film is practically flawless as well and is what makes the film such a timeless classic). Whenever you hear someone talk about the fundamental dynamics of a functional screenplay, Chinatown has all of them. From the opening images of the film down to its shocking denouement, Chinatown never wastes a second. Every line and every action has meaning. There is no filler. Even seemingly minor incidents come back in massive ways. In fact, most people’s second viewing of Chinatown will be spent marveling at all of the subtle and easy-to-miss foreshadowing that Towne accomplishes in the first couple of acts. This is a thinking man’s mystery that only gets more enjoyable upon repeated viewings.

It also doesn’t hurt that Chinatown is both an exercise in film noir mastery but it also manages to drop a ten megaton nuclear bomb on every film noir cliche that came before. Similar (but superior) to Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves, Jake is a a three-dimensional figure. Rather than being a vision of honor in a world of seedy gangsters and dangerous femme fatales, Jake is just a guy doing his job that cares a little too much what others think about him. He’s got a soft spot for dames, and he just can’t let things go. But for all of the ways that Chinatown darkens and expands on the foundations that classic noir left before it, it still does all of the crime-solving and mystery-unraveling better than anything else out there. Thanks to the breadcrumbs of clues that Towne distributes, the slow series of revelations throughout the film never seems forced or beyond belief.

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If you’ve ever seen a Roman Polanski film before, whether it’s Tess or Rosemary’s Baby or any of his other classic films, it’s very obvious that Polanski is a very visual film maker and Chinatown is no exception. The movie is very fond of long, long takes. The average take in a film (even back in the 70s when the takes were longer) was about four or five seconds. Chinatown‘s takes are often somewhere between 30 seconds and a full minute. There’s a certain technical wizardry involved in almost every shot of the film and Chinatown was one of the first great noir films shot in color. And, even without the help of black and white, Chinatown still makes great use of the shadows and soft lighting that defined the noir genre before. But at the end of the day, what stuck with me the most visually with the film were the long takes which heightened the immersion of the film to a massive degree.

And just to be the icing on the well-directed, masterfully-written cake, the performances are all highly impressive. Jack Nicholson gives easily one of the top five performances of an already peerless career as the beleaguered J. J. Gittes. Jake is cocky, charming, smooth, a little bit racist, and all-around kind of a dick. However, the role lacks any of the manic energy you often associate with Jack Nicholson (i.e. in The Shining). And so, you get to see how talented Nicholson can be even when he has to be restrained and subtle. It’s one of my favorite “change of pace” roles from one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men. Also, perhaps as a young person, I’m just so used to seeing “old man Jack Nicholson,” but watching Chinatown, you are immediately and constantly reminded why Nicholson was an iconic sex symbol and notorious ladies man. He’s able to be a charmer even with a massive bandage covering his nose.

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Faye Dunaway provides easily one of the definitive femme fatale performances in all of film noir. It is as important to the genre as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But what makes Dunaway’s performance one of the greatest of all time is, perhaps, helped by the script which slowly unravels the onion of her character, but also because Dunaway finds the dualistic nature that composes the haunted and almost broken Evelyn. It’s really a shame that Mommy Dearest ruined her career because she was one of the all-time great female leads. Legendary director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) also provides a stunning turn as Evelyn’s evil and very powerful father, Noah Cross.

It is entirely possible that I have now overhyped this film for any of my reviewers who have somehow managed to get this far in their lives and still have not seen Chinatown. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and those expectations are a little hard to match. I hope you ultimately feel the same way about it as I do. Just a little over a week removed from my “A+” score for Glengarry Glen Ross, we’re back here again for Chinatown. Both films deserve  perfect marks. What’s crazy is that either today or tomorrow, I have to watch The Godfather: Part 1 and within a week or so, I’ll be watching The Godfather: Part 2. That likely means that we’re going to have the most “A+”s in a single 50 block unit of movies that I’ve had since 2011. I’m excited about it though.

Final Score: A+

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