Chinatown (1974) Directed by Roman Polanski. With Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez and John Hillerman.
The 1970’s was a glorious decade for movies. With The Godfather and The French Connection setting the example of cinema for grown-ups, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, with its hard-boiled recollection of classic film noir and a captivating central performance from a Jack Nicholson in his prime, is a further reminder of the high quality film-making that has almost become indicative of the era.
Directed by Roman Polanski, working from a deliciously twisty script by Robert Towne, the film stars Nicholson as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private detective hired to investigate a local businessman accused by his wife of having an affair. From there, the plot thickens as Nicholson finds himself way in-over his head.
It’s all smokescreens and fedoras with a healthy dash of suspense, mystery and intrigue. It’s the sort of adventure that Captain Jean-Luc Picard would programme as a Holodeck simulation on Star Trek: The Next Generation – as Nicholson is inexorably drawn into the world of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn, a feisty dame caught up in her own tangled web of shady dealings.
There is a sense of tangibility to Chinatown. The authenticity of its few action scenes further compliment the drama. Fight scenes in films are often designed to seduce us with a sense of hyper-reality that simply does not exist. Quick edits and multiple-angle shots of punches and kicks – all resulting in a few minor bumps and bruises for our hero. Not in Chinatown. The fights are scruffy and awkward. The blows don’t ever seem to really connect, and there isn’t the now typical wrecking-ball-hitting-a-skyscraper sound effect accompaniment with every blow. In scaling down the action, Polanski maintains a very natural feel that allows us to remain fully engaged.
Although Chinatown is considered an all-time classic, it is like many great films, a simple idea. It is that same simplicity that affords it to shine, with Nicholson confidently taking centre stage with a nuanced performance that fully makes use of his charisma and inherent star power. There is devil behind those eyes; an understanding of things that we aren’t quite privy to. It is a quality he has carried over to other films, but one that makes his eminently watch-able in more or less any role.
With a soundtrack that teases between a suspenseful lone piano and trumpet jazz, Chinatown could be described as the example of a neo-noir thiller. It contains all the ingredients and refuses to sell itself short by resorting to over-emphasising. Best viewed late at night with a measure of something stiff. 4.5/5