Chinatown (1974)

Polanski’s greatest accomplishment, and one of the finest American films ever made from the ’70s.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Roman Polanski
1974 | USA | Drama/Mystery/Thriller | 130 mins | 2.35:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for sexual references

Cast:  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Plot: A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder.
Awards: Won 1 Oscar – Best Original Screenplay. Nom. for 10 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Distributor: Paramount

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 6 Jun 2008
Spoilers: No

Roman Polanski.  The name conjures up memories of his recent masterpiece, The Pianist (2002), which gave him his much deserved Best Director Oscar.  

The name, however, also reminds of the controversy that surrounded him three decades ago in which he was charged with statutory rape and then cowardly fled to his native Poland to escape charges. 

The mystery and allure of Polanski can be felt in his films, especially his earlier pictures including Chinatown, which is considered by most to be his best film ever.  

Nominated for eleven Oscars including Best Picture and Director, it bagged one for Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne in a year dominated by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.  

Chinatown is a vintage 1970s picture.  The use of abstract color, slightly surreal picture quality, and the establishment of bleak and grim moods make this a contemporary film-noir of the highest standard.  In fact, another successful modern film-noir – Curtis Hanson’s crime thriller, L.A Confidential (1997), very much drew inspiration from Chinatown.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Towne’s screenplay is one of the best achievements of the 1970s.  Full of mystery and unexpected revelations, the story weaves its way to a climatic finale that is both shocking and tragically beautiful at the same time.  

Set in America before WWII, it explores the social issues of that era.  Be it water, irrigation issues or the problem of greed and the abuse of authority, Towne intelligently examines the consequences of such issues against the backdrop of a simple yet complex ‘Sherlock Holmesresque’ case.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are extraordinary in their roles.  They have great on-screen chemistry as well as excellent acting capabilities.  This is even more remarkable as Towne’s script is a tough nut to crack, requiring the mastery of emotion and role awareness. 

Chinatown is the film that alerted the world to Nicholson’s talent, joining the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino as one of the greatest living actors to come out of the that decade.

The pacing of Chinatown is deliberately slow, thus viewers can find time to appreciate the artistic values that the film offers in abundance.  Polanski does not show a scene in its directness; in fact he tends to imply certain things (e.g. the presence of someone, the consequence of an action) in abstract ways. 

“My goodness, what happened to your nose?”

Despite the leisured pacing, Chinatown manages to engage viewers with its presentation and filming techniques.  Often, the Oscar-nominated music by Jerry Goldsmith echoes the heartless and cheerless world that the characters live in, very much the same way Bernard Hermann’s score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) would accomplish two years later. \

In addition, Polanski’s skillful use of suspense works to perfection here, almost to unbearable levels in some sequences.  It’s no wonder he’s often called the closest successor to Hitchcock. 

Chinatown is an evergreen picture of such immense quality that most critics rightly believe it to be one of the best films ever made.  Subsequent viewings not only enhance our appreciation, but help us realize that Towne’s screenplay is so much deeper and hold significant relevance to the whole construct of the plot than most of us would care to analyze.

Grade: A+




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