Some films have become so recognised as masterpieces that no-one bothers to analyse them anymore. If you mention The Godfather, people will quickly pronounce it to be one of the greatest films ever made, but if you ask them to pin down exactly what makes it great, they will struggle beyond recycled praise for the central performances. It's the same story with Chinatown: its reputation as one of the finest films of the 1970s is both maintained and justified, but the precise reasons for its greatness seem to have been forgotten.
Chinatown is an extraordinary piece of work, and is by far and away Roman Polanski's best film. Part classic flatfoot film noir, part murky political thriller, Chinatown is a bitter, twisted and cynical exploration of corruption, identity and political intrigue wrapped up in the Californian water wars of the 1920s. When held up against its big rivals for Best Picture -- The Conversation and The Godfather Part II -- it outperforms both of them, creating two hours of cinema which are mercilessly gripping and thoroughly rewarding.
In his previous few films -- Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth -- Polanski had combined a deep-rooted interest in psychological trauma with a penchant for outrageous visuals. While all three films have their substance rooted in the torment of the central characters, and the collapse of their mental state as the world closes in on them, Polanski is never afraid to compliment this with the shock value associated with gore. The rape scene in Rosemary's Baby is frightening, not just because it is mentally disorientating, but because of the physical damage being inflicted on Mia Farrow.
In Chinatown, on the other hand, the most outré or gory moment occurs in the first hour, when Jack Nicholson's nose is sliced open by Polanski as a warning for him to stay away. With a couple of exceptions, the rest of the film is subdued and understated, with the truly frightening or creepy moments coming from revelations in the dialogue. It feels like a more mature work, with characters which are considered and rounded rather than simply vessels for psychosis.
Much like Blade Runner nearly a decade later, Chinatown draws on traditional film noir characters and conventions, and retunes them to suit the interests of the story. Jack Nicholson's private eye, Jake Gittes, is every bit as downbeat and cynical as Humphrey Bogart, but he also has a patience and intelligence which lesser flatfoots have neglected. The precise manner in which he wanders through the records room, or waits for the acting chair of the water board, indicates someone who is confident, self-assured and determined to see this matter through. As the mystery deepens, Gittes' motives grow from wanting to clear his name to wanting to save the town from the evil forces at work. He undergoes a definite moral shift, and his painstaking approach to snooping makes this all the more convincing.
Likewise, Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray is not a token femme fatale or black widow. There is a romantic entanglement between her and Gittes, but this is not consummated until the final third of the film. Where Gittes starts off cynical and steadily becomes more moral, she appears cold and distant when in fact she is the most moral character in the film. There is the classic sense of mystery surrounding her, and the film gives only fleeting clues about her relationship with her husband and father. This not only makes the resulting revelations more shocking, but it makes her character compelling: we want to study her, unravel what is going on behind those plucked eyebrows and red lipstick.
Like all great noirs -- indeed like all great thrillers -- Chinatown has a twisty and labyrinthine plot, which requires your full attention to follow every twist and notice every clue. It may be that, like Blade Runner, you don't fully understand everything until about the fourth or fifth viewing. But even the first time round there can be no doubt either of Chinatown's depth or its believability.
The thing which distinguishes it from the work of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese is its complete and bitter cynicism towards every institution of modern society. For all the dark moments in The Godfather, and all the grittiness of Mean Streets, there is a faint undercurrent of nostalgia present in these films, either for the lifestyle of old-time gangsters or for a past version of America. Producer Robert Evans hired Polanski because he wanted the film to be an outsider's view on the hideous corruption therein, and as a result no institution is left unscathed.
Chinatown is at heart about how the very organisations that were created to serve the public now function for the precise opposite effect. Mulwray talks about her husband wanting the water supply to belong to the people of LA, to prevent it private owners like Noah Cross holding a town to ransom by turning off the taps. But in the end that is exactly what happens; Cross still holds the town in the palm of his hand, using the Club to pump freshwater into the sea in the middle of a drought. The face of evil may have changed, but its intentions remain the same.
Towne's script marries this feeling of betrayal and the lack of real change with a series of revelations which show just how far ordinary people have been let down by the people they trusted to provide for them. The sexual themes of the story which emerge are symbolic of the way in which the likes of Cross have manipulated ordinary citizens for personal gain. Cross' incestuous relationship with Evelyn is an echo of his 'raping' of Los Angeles and its resources. Cross has no regard for the little people his grand scheme is harming: when Gittes asks him what he can buy that he can't already afford, he coldly replies: "The future."
The final scenes of Chinatown are some of the best in cinema. Up until this point, despite all the darkening turns, Polanski seems to have convinced us that good will triumph: Cross will get his comeuppance, Evelyn will escape to Mexico and everyone will live happily ever after. But in the space of four minutes, Gittes is arrested by his former colleagues, Evelyn is killed, her 'daughter' is taken in by Cross, and Gittes is advised to leave as the cover-up becomes complete. The perfect closing lines -- "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" -- embody the film's thesis of the triumph of power and money over truth, and the inability of individuals to defeat the system. In this dark world all rules and moral codes are irrelevant, and the only way one can survive is to do "as little as possible".
Chinatown is an outright masterpiece which has stood the test of time and matured as a viewing experience. The splendid central performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are married to beautiful cinematography and meticulous direction with Polanski at the very top of his game. Robert Towne's script is one of the finest of the last 40 years, with intelligent dialogue which captures both the dry wit of Gittes and the sense of desperation and futility which surrounds the characters. It is as shocking and enthralling today as it ever was, both as a self-contained story and as a commentary on human greed. It is a magnificent masterwork which deserves every plaudit in the book.