Chinatown (1974)

Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Robert Towne

Chinatown comes with a reputation and it also comes with some great names attached to it, but really, it is just another noir, a genre which I love, but have not explored very much. Jack Nicholson was the major star back in the 70s after breaking through in Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider. Faye Dunaway too was a major star with her turn as Bonnie opposite Warren Beatty’s Clyde. And director Roman Polanski, well, all I really know about him to this point is that he is an acclaimed director who had a misstep which has kept him from this country since the 70s. This is still alleged, though at this point I think most people accept his guilt in the case, which covers him with a cloud in my eyes, but for the purpose of his films, these thoughts about a separate matter should not matter, so I will not judge based on that.

The film is centered around the private detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson). He specializes, it should appear, in catching people committing adultery, which is exactly what Mrs. Mulwray wants him to find her husband Hollis at. The only problem is Mrs. Mulwray is not Mrs. Mulwray. So when it comes out in the papers that Hollis was seen with another woman, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up just in time for Hollis to be found dead, and a complex plot to make money off Los Angeles’ water supply has Gittes caught up in something much bigger than he first anticipated.

What struck me most after finishing watching this film was just how nicely put together it was. So it was no surprise to find out that the only Oscar the film received was for its screenplay. The story and complex plot is very well thought out and delivered in a manner that is both sharp and crisp by Polanski. There really is not much in the way of stylish filmmaking, Polanski pretty much gives you the story that is necessary. And that story is exactly what a good noir should be, at least to my knowledge not having seen too many.

The cast is great, especially the leads Nicholson and Dunaway. It is easy to see why these two were stars in this era in Hollywood because they are both so natural and smooth on the screen, embodying their characters and escaping into the screen. The music score too, by Jerry Goldsmith, really stood out as a fantastic addition to the film and it really helped set the mood of such a noir in 1930s Los Angeles. There really isn’t a weakness to be found in the film. Instead, everything is just really solid and enjoyable to watch.

I will admit that there was nothing really that struck me and made me go wow. I mean the film was very good, very well made, it had plenty to like, but nothing I found to really love about it like I did when I first saw L.A. Confidential or more recently Double Indemnity. For my money those are the better noirs, though the common thread among the three is certainly great screenplays, which seems to be what fuels great noir. Anyone can do a nice thriller/mystery, but for it to be great there needs to be a level of distinction that is evident in the screenplay, which sets up great characters in an interesting time and place for an intricate mystery to unfold in the hands of knowledgeable director. Chinatown fits into this category.

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