Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Burt Young, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski, Richard Bakalyan, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, Nandu Hinds, James O'Rear, James Hong, Belinda Palmer, Rance Howard
Written by: Robert Towne
Directed by: Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 131
Date: 20/06/1974

Chinatown (1974)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Everything's Jake

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Chinatown opens in the office of private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) where Curly (Burt Young) is weeping and examining photographs of his wife engaged in coitus with another man. He tosses the photos over his shoulder and collapses against the Venetian blinds. Gittes pours him a drink and drawls, "You can't eat the Venetian blinds. I just had 'em installed on Wednesday." That's a great opening.

If Chinatown were made today, it would open instead with Gittes in the act of taking the photos of the guilty couple. He would accidentally make a noise and be noticed. He would run away, jump in his car and tear down the streets of Los Angeles, followed by another car whose occupants would be firing guns at him. He would drive on the sidewalk, knocking over a fruit cart, and maybe taking out a fire hydrant, showering innocent passersby with a stream of water. This would all happen during the opening credits and would be done with shaky cameras and about 2000 cuts.

Thankfully, Chinatown wasn't made like that. It was made by people who really knew what they were doing. Chinatown is a smart, complex, multi-layered movie, and it made money and won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. If it were made today, I have a suspicion it would bomb. In a sense, it was made today, with L.A. Confidential (1997), which used Los Angeles in a similar way, presented a similarly complex mystery story, and followed characters around who were more than just plot devices. The critics loved it, and it failed to make back its budget.

Does this mean we as moviegoers are getting dumber? I'd like to think not, especially since Chinatown is being revived at the Castro theater this week in a new print for a 7 day run. (It's also available on DVD.)

Chinatown was made by producer Robert Evans, who was the head of Paramount during some very good years that included The Godfather (1972). Evans left his post to become an actual hands-on producer and Chinatown was his first project. Robert Towne wrote the original screenplay, and it's a work that continues to be studied in film schools and is considered by many to be The Great American Screenplay. But it was director Roman Polanski (who was brought in later) who gave the movie its final touch. Towne's screenplay originally had a happy ending in which villain Noah Cross (John Huston) was shot and killed, and Gittes escapes to Mexico with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter. Polanski changed it so that Evelyn gets killed and Cross takes the daughter away, leaving Gittes powerless. Evil and corruption live. (Polanski also appears as the "midget" who cuts Gittes' nose.)

If Towne's screenplay wasn't already interesting enough, he gives Gittes an unexplained past with his old partner Escobar (Perry Lopez). Apparently, they were on the Chinatown beat together and something pretty horrible happened, but no one ever talks about it. It makes the characters sadder, wiser, more careful, and more cunning. Nicholson fills out the written page with maybe the best performance of his career, infusing Jake Gittes with cockiness, control, and jadedness. Plus he gets all the best lines, as when he tells the Chinatown joke while Evelyn Mulwray stands unseen behind him. Dunaway is perfect too, nervous and lovely, and always keeping something hidden.

There's so much to talk about in this movie, which is as close to perfect as a movie can get. The plot is very dense and complicated. It involves a scheme to divert Los Angeles water to a valley, increasing the value of that land. Hollis Mulwray, one of the heads of the Department of Water and Power is killed for discovering the scheme. But there's even more to it than that. The movie unfolds like a 1940s-era detective novel and it gets the feel and the period right, but it doesn't feel like a tribute or an homage. It feels like it belongs right beside movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941) (directed by Huston) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Chinatown is technically superior as well, thanks to the cinematographer, director, and composer. It's brilliantly photographed by John Alonzo in glowing yellows and oranges to capture a sunny, eerie side of L.A. Polanski directs with a slow tension that gives his hero (and us) time to absorb little details. No scene is ever rushed, and many takes roll for over a minute without a cut. In one scene, Gittes searches the office of Water and Power, and we see him open and close four different drawers without finding anything of interest. It adds to the amount of time he's spent in the room, building the suspense of knowing that someone is coming in at any time. The music by Jerry Goldsmith beautifully embodies the late afternoon desperation of these characters. It doesn't trumpet at you every second; it's sparse and only comes up when needed.

I should say a word about the 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, which was written by Towne and directed by Nicholson. It's not as solid -- it reverts to pure comedy from time to time -- but it's a worthy companion piece and should be seen as well.

Although I could go on for pages and pages more, Chinatown is unquestionably one of the essential American movies. Watching it again (for perhaps my fifth time) 26 years after it was made does not lessen its effect one jot. Like The Godfather and Citizen Kane (1941), and only a handful of others, it is utterly timeless. Even seeing Nicholson so young and thin wears off after the first couple of minutes as he turns into Jake Gittes one more time.

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