On the nose: Chinatown

With the rerelease of Chinatown, Geoff Andrew reflects on how this classic crime film represents a career-best for so many of the talents involved.

Geoff Andrew

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

Ironically, the final few words of Roman Polanski’s film – advice given to Jack Nicholson’s private eye J.J. Gittes by his policeman pal – are among the most memorable closing lines in all cinema. They’re nearly as well known, I’d wager, as Gone with the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and Some Like It Hot’s “Well, nobody’s perfect!”

That’s an indication of the enduring classic status of the movie, which is widely regarded not only as a highpoint of the American cinema in the 70s – for many of us, a golden age for Hollywood filmmaking – but as one of the greatest crime movies of all time.

A great deal has been written about Chinatown (1974) – including (plug alert!) a very fine study in the BFI Classics series written by my old friend Michael Eaton – so I’m not about to start adding my own comments on the brilliant precision of Polanski’s direction or the subtlety and historical resonance of Robert Towne’s script.

Suffice to say here that, in shedding light on the crucial importance of water and the corrupting influence of money in the growth of Los Angeles, a city world-famous as the home of the movies, the film merges history, myth and drama to superb effect.

It’s far more than just another meticulously mounted period private-eye mystery: it’s a multi-layered meditation on such timeless forces as greed, ambition, desire and the seductive allure of power.

Enough with the analysis! What I’d like instead to deal with briefly here is the fact that Chinatown was pretty much a career-best for all involved, not just the director. Jack Nicholson may have turned in performances that equal his Jake Gittes – I myself would nominate his Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1970), David Locke in The Passenger (1975) and Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt (2002) – but none, surely, is better.

Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is deeper and more deftly nuanced than her Bonnie Parker, let alone her Joan Crawford, while John Huston’s Noah Cross is not simply the finest of his achievements as a screen actor but one of the most frighteningly credible portraits of unbridled power ever captured on film.

The supporting players are unusually good, too: for all the brevity of their roles, Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions, Burt Young (unusually understated) as Curly, Darrel Zwerling (who?) as Hollis Mulwray, and James Wong as the Mulwrays’ butler all stick in the memory. Oh, and then there’s Polanski himself, of course, on the nose, as it were, as a man with a knife. 

Behind the scenes it’s a similar story. Robert Towne is often mentioned in reverential tones as one of the great behind-the-scenes talents of Hollywood during the unusually fertile era in question, but he has never written anything to match the rich thematic complexity of Chinatown.

Jerry Goldsmith has been composing terrific scores for decades (he even scored some of Huston’s own films in the early 60s), but none is as unforgettable as the melancholy romanticism of the main theme for Polanski’s film.

John Alonzo’s cinematography was highly satisfying on a number of titles – especially Vanishing Point (1971), Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and Tom Horn (1980) – but the Scope work for Polanski constitutes a pinnacle in his career.

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974)

Dick Sylbert was one of the truly great production designers – his CV includes such triumphs of design as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Lilith (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Fat City (1972), Reds (1981) and The Cotton Club (1984) – but he’s probably best remembered for the wondrous recreation of 30s Los Angeles in Chinatown.

Perhaps only producer Robert Evans outdid Chinatown with the first two Godfather films (though the Polanski movie, I’d argue, comes very close indeed to those Coppolas), but his achievements thereafter? Forget it, folks. It’s Chinatown.

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