Chinatown (1974)


Neo-Noir in Los Angeles

One of the greatest movies ever made, Chinatown (1974), captured audiences with its film noir feel and complex, layered story.  The film has masterful performances, is well directed, and portrays multiple emotional themes. 

The film centers around Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, a former LAPD cop turned private detective who is scratching out a living chasing cheating spouses.  The setting is 1930’s Los Angeles, which is in the middle of a drought and water supply crisis.  Gittes is hired to find acts of infidelity on the chief engineer for the water department, Hollis Mulwray.  Gittes soon finds out that the Mulwray job was a scam when he is confronted by Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray, portrayed by Faye Dunaway.  She claims to have never hired Gittes, leaving him on the hook for a lawsuit.

Gittes soon finds the Mulwray job was not only a scam, but it is part of a much deeper plot.  Hollis Mulwray is later found dead by the reservoir.  Evelyn Mulwray’s wealthy father, Noah Cross, played by Hollywood legend John Huston, is heavily involved in a land and water manipulation scheme.  The duplicitous and scheming Cross is more than he seems, and more than Gittes can handle.

The movie was written by Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for best screenplay for the film.  It is directed by legendary pedophile and director Roman Polanski.  Polanski was forced to flee the United States to avoid a jail sentence for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl shortly after the film.  (He was later accused of rape by several other underage girls and remains on the run in France) 

The film is very well acted, with Nicholson in one of his best roles.  Dunaway is the mysterious and troubled damsel in distress and plays the role to the hilt.  Nicholson and Dunaway were nominated for best actor and actress respectively. 

The movie manages to squeeze in the ongoing controversy of LA water rights which was a topic of consternation for decades.  Chinatown portrays burgeoning 1930’s Los Angeles superbly, creating a vivid and immersive atmosphere that captures the essence of the city.

Following Gittes through the complex investigation, you will pick up some pretty cool PI tricks.  From pocket watches under the tire of his mark, cracking a taillight to make a car easier to follow, and the value of having a few business cards of important people, Gittes has some old-school wisdom to convey.  His winning smile and quick on his feet stories advance his investigation in innovative and critical ways.  Any cop will find themselves rooting for the charismatic PI. 

Chinatown runs a little over 2 hours and you have to pay attention.  There are a series of plots running through the film that must be followed.  You may notice that Gittes/Nicholson is in every scene, so the audience must follow clues along with the protagonist in real time.  You will enjoy every minute of the suspense and plot twists.  The movie is available on Amazon Prime for free or most streaming services for the usual $3-4.  Enjoy an innovative and influential detective drama by checking out Chinatown this weekend!

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