When I first saw this film, roughly 5-6 years ago or so, I was a film buff, but I wasn't yet at the level I am today. I could appreciate this film, but looking back, I remember not really paying attention, plus, I watched it on TV, so there were commerical breaks and some censorship issues. Even though I didn't give it my full attention, I still gave it a "Full 5" partially because I felt obligated to, and partically because yeah, it deserves it.
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.