Review: CHINATOWN (1974) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review: CHINATOWN (1974)

5 stars
5 stars
CHINATOWN is a neo-noir masterpiece that truly turned the genre inside out with well-crafted complex plot and strong sociopolitical allegory.

Film noir has already long established in Hollywood with movies such as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), rules the genre during the classic eras of the 1940s and 1950s. And then the birth of neo-noir arrived in the 1960s, but it's not until the 1970s, when director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne hits the genre milestone with CHINATOWN -- a highly-regarded movie that received numerous accolades, including 11 Oscar nominations (with Robert Towne only took home the Best Original Screenplay award, while the rest of the awards went mostly to Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER PART II).

Set in 1937 Los Angeles, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator who specialises in matrimonial cases. One day, he is hired by a mysterious woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to investigate her cheating husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), who is a Water Department engineer. During the course of the investigation, Gittes snaps several pictures of Hollis in the company of a young blonde and figures the case is closed. However, he realizes that he's actually being conned by a woman pretending to be the wife of Hollis. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) later shows up at his office and clarified that she has nothing to do with the hiring of a private investigator in the first place. Gittes refuses to give up and continues to investigate further. The plot thickens when Hollis turns up dead and Gittes soon finds himself in a complex web of intrigue along the way.
Prior to CHINATOWN, Roman Polanski has already made his name in Hollywood with his first American debut -- the seminal horror classic, ROSEMARY'S BABY back in 1968. Here, his second Hollywood feature in CHINATOWN truly shows his remarkable talent of meticulous direction for recapturing the tone and the setting of the 1937 Los Angeles, and best of all, he manages to defy the odds by choosing to shoot the 1940s and 50s-style of black-and-white classic film noir... in muted colour. In the past, film noir was often showcased in brooding and shadowy black and white. But Polanski and his cinematographer John A. Alonzo are daring enough to contradict the rules of the particular genre by setting the movie mostly in broad daylight in Los Angeles. And interestingly enough, the moody atmosphere as well as the sense of dread and despair that characterized a film noir are all present here.

Matching Polanski's brilliant direction is, of course, Robert Towne's captivating screenplay. The plot may have been deeply complex and thus requires one's full attention to understand the labyrinthine twists and turns throughout the movie, but that is the beauty of his screenplay. It's also a rare thing, especially by today's standard, that the story alone can generate a lot of tensions and surprises without relying heavily on loud action to prove its point. Moreover, Towne has a tremendous understanding for the genre where he is not only successfully created a great detective story, but also injecting an extra layer of sociopolitical contexts that evokes two of the famous events in the 1970s -- the Vietnam War era and the Watergate scandal. Even if those contexts of the particular era are stripped off and viewed today, Towne's screenplay remains as relevant as ever because of the timeless elements -- such as themes of corruption -- that he have inserted here.

CHINATOWN is also a triumph in technical values. Apart from John A. Alonzo's amazing cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith's beautifully-layered orchestral score is worthy of a special mention here and same goes to Richard Sylbert's magnificent production design that has the lived-in feel of the 1930s period.

Jake Nicholson gives one of his finest performances ever seen as the morally-conflicted private investigator J.J Gittes, while Faye Dunaway pulls off a classic femme fatale role as the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray. Another brilliant actor worth mentioning here is the legendary director John Huston, who directed the 1941's classic noir THE MALTESE FALCON. Here, his slimy performance as Evelyn's wealthy father, Noah Cross is a perfect example of a truly dark and depraved character. Even director Polanski himself shows up in a brief but memorable role as a thug who pokes a switchblade right up into Gittes' nostril while uttering the famous line, "You know what happens to nosy fellows? They lose their noses". 

The famous slapping scene that leads to the controversial "sister/daughter" revelation; and the unforgettable downbeat finale set during the fateful night in Chinatown.

Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell): Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

This movie really hooked me from the beginning until the end. No doubt a flawless piece of great cinema.


CHINATOWN is nevertheless ranked as one of the greatest movies ever made for not only in the final golden era of 1970s cinema, but also among the best of all time. A must-see for every movie enthusiast.

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