Directed By: Roman Polanski9
Written By: Robert Towne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Chinatown is a tremendous mystery and thriller; a neo-noir throwback to the bygone Bogart pictures which offers much more than a genre rehash. Roman Polanski’s iconic drama is delineated from its genre siblings by how jaded and unromantic it is. The themes are common, but it’s a frightfully cynical foray into 1930’s seedy California, picking apart power and the corruption those with it are entitled to.
The film’s cornerstones are a screenplay by Robert Towne owned by a razor wit, and a series of strong performances, led by the cool Jack Nicholson, more human and hurt than cinema’s average P.I.
Nicholson plays Jake (J.J) Gittes, a savvy investigator whose penchant is matrimonial work but who has instincts for any number of skewed happenings. Nicholson is note perfect in his role, a controlled, no-nonsense battler, armed with a wealth of crisp dialogue forever poised on the tip of his sharp tongue, and who’s just as liable to kick back with a cigarette on the job as he is to get dirty and bloodied. Some brief moments of comedy come from Jake’s school boy inquisitiveness which he pesters secretaries and office workers with. Nothing’s getting between him and his facts, even if it means being a dick in more ways than one and revealing a little more of himself than is customary for a noir film gumshoe.
The mystery involves water, sex and murder. It begins when J.J is approached by Evelyn Mulwray, wife of Water and Power figurehead in California (and opponent to a new proposed reservoir), Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zerling). She tasks Jake with tracking her husband who she suspects is an adulterer; however we quickly learn that this isn’t the real Evelyn, that would be Faye Dunaway, and Jake with equal speed deduces that he and Hollis have been setup. Trouble is that before Jake can dig any deeper Hollis washes up dead in one of his reservoirs, and now the real Mrs. Mulwray hires Jake to delve into what is a probable murder of a man who works high-up in a city owned by all the wrong people.
What elevates Chinatown above hollow pastiche is the sensitivity of its leading characters. Jake is no calloused ice man unfazed by his situation. He’s tough, certainly, but he’s susceptible to the murky morality of the city he finds himself in. He’s challenged by the evil around him. We see him be beaten and torn. Famously, he sports a bandage on his nose for much of the film after he is savagely sliced by Polanski himself, who appears as a ratty henchman. There’s a quiet weakness there. Many of the thrills stem from the fact that it’s possible Jake fails.
Similarly, Faye Dunaway as Evelyn is no femme fatale. She too is wrestling weakness, forever stricken like a mourner at a funeral. She gets about with a phoney regality, as though she’s trying to convince herself she’s in possession of something resembling power or control.
Evelyn and Jake are drawn into each other. They find some fleeting comfort in each other’s bed, united in their mutual suppression of something bad. The film is drip-fed references to Jake’s days in the police, where his work on a case led to a well known calamity in Chinatown which threatens to repeat itself. Jake does a convincing job of masking his troubled story, blowing it away with a cloud of smoke from his cigarette, but Evelyn fails to be so headstrong. Dunaway’s is a twitchy performance. Her character physically quakes with a knowledge that is desperate to escape, a knowledge which is ultimately left for Jake to unearth.
The other key player in the drama is the insatiable, leering eyed aristocrat Noah Cross (given an old man charm by John Huston), former partner to Hollis and father to Evelyn who we know we can’t trust, but to what extent is to be determined. What makes John Huston’s Noah so menacing is that there’s no ambivalence about his position. He’s omnipotent, his dominance is assumed. When he warns Jake “you may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t”, we trust there is more than a bit of truth to it.
It’s a warning punctuated by Jerry Goldsmith’s dissonant piano which creeps with the same trepidation as Jake scouring a dried up river bed where someone has supposedly just drowned. It lends an ugliness to the film and sets the stage for something more ominous. In refusing to romanticise the noir world of Chinatown, Polanski has installed his drama with a sense of risk. Bad things happen in this world, there’s certainly nothing which resembles “the stuff that dreams are made of”.
There is a wealth of beloved cinema that Polanski’s noir both draws on and subverts. It’s an exhilarating film of stylish smoke coated mystery and ugly, painful cynicism. It’s haunting yet cool, a mean spirited tip of the hat to the LA crime dramas of the 40’s and a downbeat look into the horrors of absolute power. It’s a perfectly constructed mystery, surely placing one foot in front of the other before a cacophony of revelation which rattles in the brain like tinkering pin-balls, and it all finds the perfect mouth piece in a towering leading man.