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Retro-spective: Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown is a classic noir starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film follows private Detective Jake Gittes, who uncovers a conspiracy in 1950s Los Angeles.  The film was directed by Roman Polanski in 1974, and Robert Towne’s script won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It’s regarded as one of the best films ever made. I saw this film as part of Picturehouse’s Vintage Sundays Jack Nicholson season, and it’s every bit as good as people say.

Chinatown is almost perfect in every way. Nicholson gives a subtle, characterful performance as Gittes, a classic gumshoe with a twist. Dunaway is also superb, and brings real pathos and heart to her tragic character. However, the real scene-stealer is John Huston, who directed such films as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but here is a character so repulsive and horrible he gives Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List a run for his money.

The story is labyrinthine and knotty, and you have to pay attention to every scene to fully grasp the spread of the mystery. The pacing is languid but if you watch it knowing this, then its impossible to tear you eyes away from it. That’s not saying that this film is uneventful; the film is packed full of classic scenes, quotes and images which will stay with me. The sequence with Nicholson’s nose is brilliant, a real subversion of the classic tough guy heroes from classic noir films. Other scenes which stick in my mind include any time Huston is on screen, as this sick feeling crept over me every time, and a scene in an orange grove which is utterly thrilling.

Roman Polanski, now a very controversial figure, directs with a sure touch and an incredible sense of style. This is only the third Polanski film I’ve seen (I’ve seen Frantic and Carnage but wasn’t wowed by either) but this makes me want to watch more of his films, especially Rosemary’s Baby. As is the case with the great directors from this era (to me the 1970s is the best period for film ever) like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, Polanski isn’t afraid to shoot in lengthy shots which keep the viewer immersed in the story. The next time you watch a Spielberg film, watch out for the number of times he chooses to shoot entire scenes in one take. It’s an impressive confidence and mastery of technique. While I do not admire Polanski as a man, I admire his artistic ability, which is showcased brilliantly in Chinatown.

If you like noir films, then check it out. Don’t expect a fast-paced ride, but if you give yourself over to its pace and style, then the characters and plot will draw you into the vivid and nihilistic world in which they inhabit. This is one of Nicholson’s finest performances, up there with Five Easy Pieces and The Departed, and it’s one which feels entirely different to Jack’s usual roles. It’s a gem.

Image source: Thesocietyforfilm.com