Overview: When private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate an adultery case, he discovers something much darker. Paramount Pictures. 1974. Rated R. 131 minutes.
Everything Matters: The first time I saw Chinatown, I thought I had missed something. The film propelled me into action and treachery, dirty dealing and danger, so suddenly, that I felt certain that I had missed the first half of it. Alas, I hadn’t, and that’s just how Chinatown rolls. Chinatown is filled with murder, incest, lies and deceit as Detective Gittes uncovers a dark conspiracy that runs throughout the veins of a town. This is a film that wastes no time, and by most typical Hollywood standards, it’s a film that doesn’t even give the standard amount of exposition. There are no clean character introductions or gimmicky voiceovers explaining motivations to viewers. And as such, there isn’t a moment wasted in Chinatown. Every line, every action, it’s all done for a reason, whether the viewer knows it immediately or not. It’s all important, all vital to the story screenwriter Robert Towne is telling.
Because there’s no downtime in Chinatown, this is a movie that never talks down to its viewers. It’s an art of balance and even-handed narrative speaking that modern Hollywood often seems to have forgotten. Chinatown gives its viewers enough credit to understand that they don’t need every twist and turn explained. Part of the fun of this movie is simply keeping up with what’s happening. It isn’t easy, and that’s a big part of why it works.
The Screenplay: Towne’s screenplay is regarded as one of the best ever, and it isn’t hard to see why. From Chinatown, we get some of the most quotable lines ever heard in film. Most notable, there’s the towering, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown:” a line that carries so much weight that I’m not sure I can properly sum it up.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” is a line that can be broken down and read in a number of different, equally poignant ways. In the literal interpretation, Jake’s partner is telling him that this is Chinatown, a place where things aren’t always fair. He shouldn’t worry about it. This is a town where anything goes and the rules don’t apply to everyone. But when you look at the line from a larger, worldlier standpoint, it becomes clear that this line sums up a lot of the world’s desperation. Those in positions of power have always and will always abuse it. If you’re wealthy or well-connected, the rules simply don’t apply to you the way that they apply to everyone else. Look at what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri right now. That is Chinatown. This is a line that will never get old, because unfortunately, it’s one that will always ring true.
The Final Five Minutes: Chinatown is smart and carefully plotted throughout the entire film, but it doesn’t fully earn its reputation as a classic until the final five minutes. The most frustrating and wonderful thing about Chinatown is that despite its clever, well thought out and carefully set up storylines, the final five minutes of the film essentially decimate everything to the point where none of it matters. It doesn’t matter that Jake cracked the case. It doesn’t matter that he caught the bad guy. It’s a hopeless, desperate ending that feels incredibly unfair, and that’s what makes it amazing. Chinatown doesn’t care about happiness. It doesn’t care about right or wrong. In Chinatown, the rich and powerful rule things, and it doesn’t matter what they do as long as they can pay for it. When someone tells Mrs. Mulwray to let the police handle things, she screams, “He owns the police.” And she’s right.
Chinatown is special because it doesn’t shy away from cold, bleak realities. There is no happy ending, no smiles or pleasant music as the credits play. When the screen cuts to black, the world feels a little dimmer. It might not necessarily be a very enjoyable viewing experience, but it’s a completely necessary one.
Acting, Directing and Music: I’ve written more than 600 words already about Chinatown and I haven’t even mentioned the acting, directing, or brilliant soundtrack. To put it simply: It’s all great. Jack Nicholson gives what might be his best performance ever as the cool, clever Jake Gittes. He’s always one step ahead of the game until, suddenly, shatteringly he’s not. Faye Dunaway is emotional and uncompromising as Evelyn Mulwray. Scenes between Gittes and Mulwray fuel this film. They are two great minds, bouncing off each other in the best way possible.
Roman Polanski’s direction sealed Chinatown’s reputation as film noir classic. Apparently, he helped Towne make decisions regarding the script. For those decisions alone, Polanski helped make a phenomenal film. But his skill can also be seen in every shot of the film. In his choice of camera angles and close-ups, and in how he chooses to focus on specific characters and moments.
The film’s score, which was recorded in just days, brings it all together. The music dramatically and beautifully accentuates each scene. It’s often dramatic and hard to ignore. In many ways, the music is a character in itself as it ebbs and flows through the case with Jake Gittes.
A Genuine Classic: I’m not sure if any film has ever gotten everything right, but if ever there was a top contender, Chinatown is it. This film has few, if any, faults. It is a dark, twisted, constantly entertaining classic. I believe with Chinatown, Robert Towne truly wrote one of the strongest screenplays ever. This is a film that stays with you. It’s one that every movie lover should see. Immediately. This is the power of Chinatown, and we will never, ever forget it.