TBT: Chinatown (1974)

Back for more blasts from the past? You’ve come to the right place. This Thursday we find ourselves straying into dangerous territory, going places we’ve been warned to stay away from. Parts of town that remain mysterious and off-limits for good reason. Of course, I’m not talking about your local ghetto, or the part of New Orleans that’s still submerged in water. I’m talking about that part of Los Angeles that, once you’ve been there, you’ll never stop being haunted by it, just like Jack Nicholson’s character in 

Today’s food for thought: Chinatown.

Stylishly escaping gunfire since: January 1, 1974


When praising a film the word stylish tends to make an appearance. Physical attraction is one of our base drives and so it only makes sense we’re drawn more to films that look good rather than to ones that don’t. We shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so though, even if there are times we’re conscious of how obvious our decisions are being driven by our desire to see good-looking people in a good-looking movie (after all, Focus isn’t the only fashion magazine posing as a movie released this year). There is of course some difference between the guilty pleasure of Will Smith’s film career and appreciating the facelift Casino Royale gave to the James Bond franchise.

In the case of Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir crime thriller Chinatown ‘stylish’ just doesn’t feel adequate. What’s more is the film does not rest on that laurel. Aside from being visually iconic and brought to life with a swankiness only a duo like Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway could provide, Chinatown offers a complex and cerebral mystery involving romance, seduction and copious amounts of danger. Equal parts mesmeric and paranoiac, this fictional world set during a period of severe drought in 1937 California was inspired by the Californian Water Wars, a series of conflicts beginning at the turn of the 20th Century between the city of Los Angeles and farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley over ownership of the local water supply and its subsequent distribution.

It’s against this backdrop of environmental-political tension Polanski establishes his last American film, achieving a production overflowing in style and substance, one that simultaneously romanticizes and reviles the greater Los Angeles area. J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) is a dedicated private eye who specializes in matrimonial affairs. When a mysterious woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) employs his services, asking that he find out about the affair she knows her husband is having, Gittes is pulled unwittingly into a labyrinthian web of lies, deceit and corruption that ultimately will send him all the way back to the place he thought he would never return to: Chinatown.

Gittes (a name I keep wanting to misspell) is particularly good at what he does. That might be because he has little in the way of a personal life, dedicating most (if not all) of his time to his work. His latest assignment all but ensures this will be an ongoing pattern, as the husband in question is none other than Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Naturally, Gittes has some questions for the man but before he can ask any of them, Mulwray’s body is being dragged out of a river, a river that has been bled dry thanks to the diversion of water behind a reservoir that’s being heavily guarded by the department’s security. Gittes turns to Mrs. Mulwray for some answers after he’s brutalized by said security (a cameo performance from Polanski himself as a henchman is somewhat amusing) and left with no substantial leads. He’s convinced she’s hiding some secret.

Her father, a powerful and dangerous man named Noah Cross (John Huston), holds sway over where the water is to be distributed. His plan is to incorporate the Owens Valley into the Los Angeles area as a way of controlling the resource and ultimately increasing his wealth. Gittes investigates Cross, who in turn requests Gittes’ help in finding the mistress of his daughter’s husband, claiming he will double the pay and even give him a bonus if he succeeds in retrieving her. It’s something of a leap of faith Gittes takes in his investigation. He leaves behind the simpler pleasures of solving mundane cases of infidelity for a much more challenging and personal case that will have serious implications for all involved; a case where the end game for Gittes isn’t made clear. What’s he getting out of all of this?

An easier question to answer: what does Nicholson get out of starring in this pervert’s film? If the pinstriped suit and fedora don’t make it obvious enough it’s an opportunity to demonstrate some sense of stability in a seductive and — at the risk of overusing the word — stylish cinematic environment in which he gradually loses said stability to the increasing pressures created by those around him. As a private investigator, the man is not someone we can afford to like at every turn, yet Nicholson imbues the guy with a personality that’s difficult to root against, even if his stubborn persistence ruffles more feathers than just those of the characters on screen. He has the trappings of a thoroughly unlikable individual — nosy, somewhat temperamental and unable to forego obsession for the sake of his own well-being — Gittes is somehow still deeply empathetic, while remaining vintage, enigmatic Jack Nicholson.

We need look no further than Dunaway’s eloquence and measured line delivery to find Chinatown‘s better half in terms of style and grace. Evelyn exudes beauty and desperation simultaneously, a combination which usually translates into ‘damsel in distress’ status for most leading females, yet Evelyn isn’t easily pushed over, despite the complicated circumstances of her personal affairs. Dunaway proves a sensational match for Nicholson, equaling him in terms of the intensity and strength of her own convictions. The pair make for a timeless cinematic couple, despite the atypical relationship. (Award another point to Chinatown for its blatant disregard for cinema’s blueprint for traditional romance.)

Chinatown‘s frequently mentioned in the classic cinema conversation and it’s not difficult to see why. Between John A. Alonzo’s stunning ability to bathe California in visual splendor while generating fear and anxiety from the same, and Polanski’s assured direction that slowly but surely entices viewers into the mystery, there’s little that the film does that proves otherwise. Running over two hours in length, time simply disappears and a new timeline emerges: where and when does Gittes get to the bottom of this investigation? What does he find? Was it all worth the effort? When it comes to conducting business around Chinatown, the answer isn’t likely to be what any of us are looking for.

“Forget it, Jack. It’s Hollywood.”

Recommendation: Despite my personal feelings towards Roman Polanski, I can’t deny his place in the grander cinematic picture. His work is distinctive, immersive and extraordinarily complex. Chinatown is one to go to if you’re looking for another legendary Jack Nicholson performance, but it’s also something to consider if you’re seeking out a quality crime noir. Robert Towne’s screenplay is frequently cited as one of the best ever created, and if that’s how you measure your enjoyment of movies, you might keep that in mind as well. In general though, I’ll call this one a must-see based on its effortless entertainment value. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

TBTrivia: You can take Jack Nicholson out of a basketball game but you can’t take the game out of Jack Nicholson. At one point, Roman Polanski and Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson’s portable TV with a mop. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Lakers basketball games and kept stalling shooting.

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Photo credits: http://www.adammcdaniel.com; http://www.imdb.com

31 thoughts on “TBT: Chinatown (1974)

  1. Pingback: TBT: Unforgiven (1992) | digitalshortbread

  2. Nice review man. I also struggle when going over Polanski’s filmography. I think the man is a criminal and a coward and neglecting his past just because he’s a strong director is a pitiful plea for a pedophile. That being said, I do think Chinatown is a masterpiece and one of the most essential pieces 70s cinema.

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  3. Incredible Review, Tom. I hold this film in very high regard. Despite Polanski’s rep personally (So many directors have these insane issues, from Victor Salva to Woody Allen to even Bryan Singer), his cinematic prowess is incredibly prodigious. If you can, check out Frantic by him as well, with Harrison Ford. Good work, man!


  4. Very hard to argue with that rating mate. This is Chinatown Tom, eight out of eight! Great review Tom; here’s hoping I’ll see more classics get the DSB treatment!


  5. Wow, how did I not realize that Polanski made this. I haven’t seen this yet but I know it’s been recommended by so many. I should really get into this one soon. Fine review/tribute, Tom!


    • Yep! Slowly but surely getting into Roman Polanski over here haha. But it’s a wonderful movie, this one. Can’t wait to watch it again either. Jack Nicholson is just impossibly cool in Chinatown. Dammit man


  6. Good stuff man! Sometimes his personal crap causes us to forget what an amazing filmmaker Polanski really is. It is a shame really. But he has brought it on himself.

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    • Yeah I was about to go off on a tangent in my writing about him but I had to stop b/c it’s totally irrelevant. In some ways it makes these movies more interesting. We all have our issues, some may have more serious things going on than others, but still. Directors at least can hide behind the guise of the cinematic art form. 🙂 I have to see more of his movies, this and Rosemary’s Baby have been superb experiences. And I don’t use that word lightly, these things are experiences. So involving.


    • Yeah there’s no doubt there’s some less flattering images of Polanski when he’s not off shooting a film but man, this guy’s reputation serves him well. I’m really excited to getting into more of it. I think i might take a look at Repulsion next. Or maybe our Barbed Wire Ass Wipe movie. In theaters everywhere May 5, 2016. 😉


  7. Fantastic review Tom. I think this is one of the very best films of the 1970s…and arguably one of the best of all time. I don’t think any actor has had a run quite like Nicholson had in the early to mid 70s…not even De Niro or Pacino. I’m long due a rewatch and I noticed it had popped up on Netflix too. I’m persuaded to see it sooner rather than later!

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    • It’s pretty tremendous how good he had it in movies. A favorite of mine for sure, and I think even more so given that I agree that he does rival De Niro and Pacino. Haven’t actually ever stopped to think about him in the bigger picture but you’re 100% right. Nicholson’s brilliant, and movies like Chinatown prove why. Loved this movie, so glad I finally watched it (I’m only 40 years late to the party. . . )

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  8. Excellent piece Tom. This is one of my favourites but you shed somer new light on it, causing me to trhink about the film in ways I never had. Really good stuff man, Nicholson and Faye are terrific, as is the directing. How cool is the scene where Nicholson gets his nose sliced?! Love that bit 😀

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    • Man that part was excellent! Haha seeing Polanski turn up was quite amusing for me. I don’t know why. He was convincing. It’s not like his performance was bad.

      I’m glad I was able to shed new light on an old classic man; I’ve been challenging myself lately by accident by picking all these older ‘classics,’ movies that so many people have said so much about already (and better). Haha. But it’s cool, i like a challenge. Glad you liked the review. I kinda didn’t like it when i first posted it as I was rushed to do it

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