Cult Film Classic: Chinatown

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I’ve been neglecting the movie section of the website for some time so I thought there was no better way to get it up and running with another film favourite of mine; a re-visit to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. I reviewed this one a while back for the guys over at Ramp.ie, but thought I’d post a variation of it here since I’ve watched it twice this week already!

The 1974 classic that is Chinatown is one film that I always go back to. Despite the fact that it was made all those years ago, the movie has retained a timeless quality, thanks to a stellar cast, amazing writing by Robert Towne and some excellent direction by Polanski. I remember the first time I ever stumbled across the film as it was shown on a movie channel. I was never the biggest fan of Neo-Noir films, so I expected to be less than impressed as I watched the residents of Los Angles cope with a serious water draught in the 1930s. How wrong I was. Twenty minutes in and I was completely hooked.

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulray

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulray

One can find much to say about Roman Polanski’s personal affairs, but there is no denying his talent as a director. Chinatown is a prime example of what happens when every element within a film comes together seamlessly to create a classic. With a superb script, top-notch cast, gritty realism and a twist at every turn, Polanski is at his best here. Chinatown set the standard to which all following neo-noir films would be held. And in my personal opinion, no film set in the genre since has ever matched it.

Set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, it’s not money that is the driving force, but water. L.A is experiencing a serious drought and this sets into motion the chain of events that affects each of our central characters.

J.J Gittes (played by a very charismatic Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles) is a slick private eye, hired to spy on an unfaithful husband. The husband suddenly turns up dead and the woman that hired Gittes in the opening scenes is discovered to be an impostor. The real wife, Evelyn Mulray (played brilliantly by Faye Dunaway) then comes forward and hires Gittes to solve her late husband’s murder. What follows is the spinning of an elaborate web of deceit, dead ends, and revelations. Be sure to keep an eye out for that scary nose-cutting scene, (which, incidentally, seemed a hell of a lot more graphic when it was released in ’74) and for the amusing cameo from Mr Polanski himself.

Jack Nicholson as J.J Gittes

Jack Nicholson as J.J Gittes

Despite its general brilliance, critical acclaim and success, Polanski has said in a number of interviews that he didn’t really think he was “doing anything special” and had little idea of the impact Chinatown would have while he was filming, but that he knew the story and script were winners. This is thanks to the talents of screenwriter Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans. Towne in particular deserves much of the credit, and his influence was sealed by his Oscar win for his work. His was the only win out of the 11 nominations the film received.

Polanski is on top form here and, in terms of his directorial skills, he deserves all the praise that he gets. He is the captain at the helm and he pulls all of the elements together so that we are enthralled from start to finish.  Chinatown has intricate layers, complex characters, and quips and lines that are almost too beautiful for words. The line “Forget it Jake; it’s Chinatown,” delivered against that haunting score is one such standout moment.

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There are various reports of the constant tension on set, particularly between Polanski and Dunaway, and the director describes a number of incidents in his biography Roman by Polanski. He tells of one scene in particular when Gittes meets Evelyn in a restaurant to discuss the case. Two takes in with considerable preparation spent on the scene, Polanski lost patience with a hair on Dunaway’s head which kept catching the light, and simply reached and plucked it out. Dunaway is said to have lost it. Polanski has since described Dunaway as “a gigantic pain in the ass” and also said that she “demonstrated certifiable proof of insanity” (one of his more memorable quotes!). Though they clearly didn’t get on, this tension between them would be a crucial element when filming the movie’s key scene later on.

Chinatown has featured on countless ‘Best Of’ movie lists, topping polls by the likes of The Guardian, filmsite.org and The Sydney Morning Herald.  It also ranks second on the American Film Institutes’ top ten list of the Best Mystery Films of all time. It was released on Blu Ray in 2012, which saw the film restored to its former glory, so those that are a fan of the film should get there hands on a copy (it is suitably lacking in bonus content though, which is a great shame).

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The winning combination of a superb, suspenseful mystery, standout performances, elegant sets and costumes,  generally inspiring direction and mesmerising score (Goldsmith was required to compose the score in just 11 days, after producers disliked the original one), mean that Chinatown will remain a classic for years to come. If you’ve not watched it already, add it to your must-see list!

Are you a fan of the film? Tell me your thoughts in the comment section below!

 

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