I couldn't latch on to Nicholson's or Dunaway's characters, and as much as I can appreciate this on a technical level, it didn't grab me in any way, nor live up to the promised marvel.
As a fan of film noir and tough detective movies, I am too often put off by modern entries into the genre that try to replace atmosphere and intelligence by just having nudity and swearing; the genre managed atmosphere without these in the forties and fifties but yet modern films seem to rely on them. With Chinatown however, everything works well as a homage to the best years of the genre and, as such, is very well set in the period and is of suitable presentation even if the material and tone is darker and harder than would have been allowed years ago. This is not to say it is just a copy and paste from better films because it isn't and indeed stands out as one of the best detective noirs I have seen in ages. The plot is always going to be the most important thing and it gets it spot on throughout, doing the proper thing of starting with a simple story and continually building it more and more complex as it goes. Unlike some other "classics" of the genre, Chinatown manages to do this without ever losing the audience and I found the plot to be both rewardingly complex but yet still very easy to follow.
Needless to say, things are very dark and the script is convincingly dark and miserable, leading to an ending that is as depressing as I have seen, not so much in what actually happens but also in the wider implications for the characters that the credits prevent us from seeing. Director Polanski does a great job of putting this story in a lush setting that produces a real strong sense of period but also manages to always be showing us the darkness coming through subtly throughout the movie. Of course it helps that he also has a great cast to work with. Jack Nicholson is iconic in this role and, if I had to pick one film to act as an introduction to Nicholson then it would be this one. He is tough yet damaged, upright but seedy and he brings out his complex character well. Dunaway has less screen time but is just as impressive with a similarly dark role. Huston adds class and manages to ooze menace while also coming across as a harmless old man. The support cast are all fine but really the film belongs to these three, with Nicholson being the stand out role.
Overall this is a very classy film that has stood up very well to become a well-deserved classic. The story is complex, mysterious yet simple to follow; it is dark and seedy without relying on swearing or nudity to set the atmosphere. The direction is great, with a real atmosphere and sense of time and place that is matched by a great collection of performances delivering a great script.
Well, recently I decided to rewatch it, this time giving it my full attention, having it on DVD, and seeing it having far more knowledge and appreciation of POlanski, the genre, the historical and cinematic contexts (of the story and its creation), and being more mature to fully appreciate things in general.
I now recall my old review (which was like, a sentence, and not a good one at that), and I disown it. This true is an important and brilliant work of art. It's a great callbakc to classic 30s/40s film noir detective stories, and works as a legitimate entry into that subgenre, though in the "neo-noir" form.
They had some real guts to make this film when they did, as they did, especially since film noir detective stories were pretty blase by the 1970s, even though a few did crop up. Using actual historical events as the backdrop for the story, this is a tale of a sharp tongued private eye (who specializes in matrimonial cases) that gets caught up in a web of lies, deceit, and treachery, and gets far more than he bargained for, considering that he was initially hired to spy on a guy who is suspectedx of cheating on his wife.
What we get instead is a multi-layered story that is part mystery, part psychological drama, and part condemnation of those in control of public works who don't use their power and control responsibly. This is a lot to take on, but it's all very intriguing, mesmerizing, and brought to life by Robert Towne's sharp, intelligent, and amazingly cynical screenplay.
I just love the blend of classic detective story but infused with the attitudes of the era the film was made, but still played straight. This is some dark stuff, and it's not really about what it is initially about, and the title is one of those cases where it is integral to the whole yes, even though it doesn't figure in as much as you might think, kinda like Fargo. Still though, I can see why this film is so lauded. Controversy time though, I do think think this might be somewhat overrated to a degree, and also how weird it is that this film is so loved considering the material and how dark and cynical this all is.
The performances are of course outstanding, with Nicholson really helping to cement his legacy here, and some fine work from Dunaway, which includes a brief shot of her exposed nipple (not that anyone asked for it). Casting John Huston was a superb touch as well, and if you need to ask why, well, not to be a tool about it, but you probably should brush up on your film history.
It's not just the performers and script that make this film though. Jerry Goldsmith's score is great, and is alternately beautiful and depressing. Polanski gives some of his best direction here, the cinematography is pitch perfect, and there's all sorts of material here for analysis and discussing, and Lord knows I love me some subtext.
All in all, yes, despite my slight feelings of this being overrated and somewhat baffled as to why it is so revered, it is one of the best ever. SInce it manages to do that, it gets even more credit in my book for being a real gem.
Chinatown is a must watch film if you consider yourself a film buff. It is one of those classics that deserves all the praise it has gotten. Everything that makes a film great is at work here. There's a great director, Roman Polanski, who knows when to be patient with a story, but also knows when to pick up the pace a little bit. There's a great performance from both the leading actor, Jack Nicholson, and the leading actress, Faye Dunaway. The plot is engaging and at times suspenseful. This is one of the best detective stories you can watch.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake, a private detective. One day a woman comes into his office and tells him she wants him to investigate her husband because she thinks he is having an affair. Her husband just happens to be the builder of Los Angeles' water supply system, and Los Angeles is in the middle of a bad drought. Well it turns out that the person who hired him wasn't actually the wife, and was hired to do it. After Hollis is killed, Jake begins to think there is something more going on than what meets the eye.
Before watching this I had a belief that I wouldn't like it as much as I do Rosemary's Baby; Roman Polanski's horror masterpiece, despite this being considered Polanski's best. After watching Chinatown, I must say, I still like Rosemary's Baby more. That isn't a nock on this film at all. It just goes to show how great Polanski is. Think what you want of him, but when it comes to making movies, he is a genius. I loved his cameo in the film too.
Chinatown is an amazing story of corruption and a great noir. Nicholson gives a tremendous performance, as he always did. Faye Dunaway is absolutely gorgeous and has a great screen presence. Nicholson and Dunaway have amazing chemistry when on the screen together. They make the movie worth watching just to see them together. Everything else(Polanski, wonderful cinematography, and a great score) are gravy.
Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
Since I already know the story inside and out, this viewing allowed me to concentrate on the texture and pacing of the film as well as some of the quirky bit characters along the way. Here we have a 70's film taking place in 30's LA that perfectly mimics the noir film style of that era, from the shadows and lighting that have an almost black and white feel, to its treatment of women and Asians. The climactic scene in which the big secret is finally revealed is almost laughable in an off-putting kind of way, and yet somehow Polanski walks the fine line making it a statement of the times (for those unaware, it involves a man slapping a woman).
I'm not going to reveal anything of the story, just mention that it is a mystery wrapped in another mystery, where the motivating factors are quite original and the topic revolutionary for its time (early 70's). Polanski simply follows Nicholson as he follows the clues in a case that lead him into a Byzantine maze of deception that only vaguely relates to the case he was hired for.
Nicholson is superb as the gumshoe detective Jake - a former LA cop who is running a moderately successful PI firm (specializing in recording infidelities). While working a case he runs across the wife of an important government official, wonderfully portrayed as a chilly, detached, somehow damaged doll by Faye Dunaway. John Huston aptly plays her father; a rich man of the kind of moral ambiguity that suits a man who can buy whatever he desires.
Along the way we encounter a stereotypical Chinaman gardener, all bows and broken English; the female denizens of an old folk's home; a quirky group of cowboy ranchers (in an odd, odd scene that I frankly thought served no purpose); Nicholson's hard boiled ex partner who is now a police lieutenant, and various cliché heavies, including Polanski himself as a knife wielding thug (amusing since Polanski's first film was called Knife In The Water).
The ending is very melodramatic, yet true to the noir 30's feel, so even though you may role your eyes at what you are viewing, complete with the tag line "forget it Jake, it's just Chinatown", you can appreciate the artistry - the way that last bit was filmed and how every thread of the plot comes together in a very disturbing way. As the crowd of Asians flock towards Dunaway's car like moths drawn to a flame, you get a hint of the underlying message of the script - we are all, in one way or another, uprooted, displaced aliens making our way in this hostile environment called life.