Published on June 20th, 1974 | by Padraic Coffey1
Though released in 1974, Chinatown begins with the Paramount logo of old, that instantly recognisable pyramidal mountain, bathed in a sepia-tone. In doing so, the film associates itself with a bygone era, when film noir was in its prime, and which most considered resigned to the past. Indeed, most would have been right in that assumption, for despite the presence of familiar genre trappings – private detectives, femme fatales, diabolical revelations – Chinatown differs greatly from the superficially-similar precursors to which it is sometimes compared. There is no worldweary voiceover narration – not a prerequisite for the genre, but a common trope as seen in the likes of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past – and no black-and-white cinematography; one of the most striking features of the film is how it captures colour, from the distinctive cream of Jake Gittes’ (Jack Nicholson) suits, to the garish red that spurts when Gittes is viciously slashed with a stiletto. But perhaps what most separates Chinatown from the films of the past is its sheer thematic darkness. Film noirs may have never made for upbeat cinema, but none came close to the shocking dénouement of Polanksi’s film.
The script of Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, is often held up by the likes of screenwriting guru Robert McKee as one of the finest ever written. The only Academy Award which the film received went to Towne, in a year dominated by The Godfather Part II (Towne had actually contributed work to the screenplay of the original Godfather, uncredited). Plot-wise, it is a labyrinthine tale that begins when Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is propositioned to tail Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, by Mulwray’s wife. Initially reluctant to take an adultery case where a man is implicated – perhaps out of a sense of self preservation – Gittes nonetheless yields to the offer. When his snapshots end up on the front page of a newspaper, and it emerges Mrs. Mulwray was a fraud, Gittes is determined to fend off any accusations of muckraking. This leads him to Mulwray’s true wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), as well as a large-scale property scandal.
Though it is hard to envisage such a time today, Chinatown marks a moment in cinema when Jack Nicholson was still a fresh, unpredictable screen presence. Having established himself playing an alcoholic lawyer in Easy Rider and a classically-trained pianist in Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown gave Nicholson one of the defining roles of his career. Behind his slick demeanour and snappy comebacks (“Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick”) there lies a character haunted by a fatal error of judgement in his past as a policeman in Chinatown, to which the title alludes. Dunaway gives perhaps the best performance in the film as a women whose fragility is disguised beneath her immaculate outward persona. Second viewings afford audiences the chance to witness the marvellous subtlety with which Dunaway betrays Evelyn’s vulnerability. John Huston – who made his own formidable contribution to film noir with his debut, The Maltese Falcon – makes a rare appearance in front of the cameras as the abhorrent Noah Cross. It is no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis would bear some vocal resemblance to Huston when he too played a Californian capitalist in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
For better or worse, Roman Polanksi is as well known for the tragic details of his personal life as for his tremendous creative output. Having lost his mother in Auschwitz and his heavily-pregnant Sharon Tate, murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1968, Polanski had a view of life that was darker than most. He quarrelled with producer Robert Evans over the ending to the film – Evans had wanted a more optimistic finale – but Polanksi decision proved the correct one. Without its downbeat closer, Chinatown would still be an enthralling, wonderfully-written and superbly acted detective movie. With it, Chinatown ranks as American cinema at its absolute finest.