Movie Review: Chinatown
Director: Roman Polanski
Reviewed: 15 April 2012
jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
Devastating. A film that haunts me far past the edges of the frame, Polanski's Chinatown exists in my mind as the premier film noir, Nicholson's nosey Jake Gittes as the classic flawed hero in the vein of Philip Marlowe, and the totality of the ending overwhelmed me again even though I knew it was coming. A Top Ten film of all-time for me.
A film that grapples with corruption, incorruptibility, capitalism, and the destruction of California, to view it now in 2012 is to see it with fresh eyes and fresh relevance. It exists of its time period (ostensibly the 1930's based on the FDR posters), but I think the depths of the depravity, the interrelationships of public and private interests, and the menace of the villainy are prescient. P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood seems on par with Chinatown as a parable of the demonic nature of capitalism as well as the destruction of the Eden of California, as well as on par with Michael Mann's The Insider in its depiction of corruption and corporate negligence for nefarious purposes. A searing film bolstered by Nicholson who in my mind has never been better. John Huston's slithering, snake-like performance as Noah Cross has no cinematic equal. Jerry Goldsmith's score lingers in the mind far past the final shot of an empty Jake being walked off set, walked off the street, into the darkness of Chinatown, defeated and disillusioned while Polanski cranes upward to heighten his impotence.
Jake Gittes, a local private investigator with a determined staff, investigates an alleged adultery case which propels him into a world of duplicity, water politics, and murder. Nicholson slowly and steadily navigates through the world of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, brilliant), her husband Hawlis, her father Noah Cross (Huston) as well as shadowy hoods and figures around the corners of the film played by recognizable faces (most notably, Polanski himself!). The deeper that Gittes goes, the more he unravels and the more he crafts his own doom. Portentous signs haunt this entire film, and Polanski signals the menace in its quiet, slow moments as well as its action set pieces. Gittes smokes a cigarette in bed, musing to himself, "I tried to protect a woman, and I ended up hurting her" mid-film, and the allusions to his time in the Chinatown District are never fully fleshed out, but their lack of clarity fits with the film's overall aesthetic of murkiness. What is Mulwray looking for in the tide pools? Why is the broken set of spectacles in the backyard? What is the nature of Evelyn's deception? What are the police angling for in this case? Who works for who? Question piles on top of question, and every sequence in this film explores issues of power, water, truth, deception. There are no easy answers here. There is no relief.
I am convinced that a film's emotional power comes from an amalgamation of its script, its shots and sequences, its directorial stamp or signature as well as its performances and music. Chinatown represents a master director telling a classic and devastating story, told in a way that is jarring and fresh and innovative in its depiction of violence and use of suspense, as well as anchored by Jack Nicholson at his very best, and a top form Faye Dunaway and John Huston as possibly the greatest villain of all-time.
Essential viewing. In my Top Ten of all-time.