When it came out, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) wowed critics and audiences alike.
When it came out, Roman
Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) wowed critics and audiences alike. Now it’s
widely considered a masterpiece of thriller/neo-noir cinema. Viewed on a
somewhat fittingly dark, rainy night in smoggy central London at the close of 2012,
it’s still abundantly clear why this stunning take on the ‘40s noir hardboiled
detective genre is one of the leftfield Polish director’s finest
Chinatown has got all the right ingredients: a knockout cast
led by Jack Nicholson and co-starring
Faye Dunaway and John Huston, a sharp, acerbic screenplay by Robert Towne and the unhurried, subtle
directing hand of Polanski who, taking film noir as a starting point, and with
a close eye to period detail, has added another layer of pessimism and a ‘70s
sensibility to the omnipresent corruption and capitalism endemic in the city.
Never has the cynicism of a character in cinema been quite
so appealing as that of Nicholson’s JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, a cop turned private eye
in 1930s LA. His dark, knowing vision of the world and all its scummy qualities
is so poetic that one dreams of having the quick wit and vocabulary to come out
with the sort of one-liners and imaginative come-backs that trip off his tongue
on an hourly basis. (The opening scene sees him consoling
‘Curly’, whose wife Gittes has snapped in flagrante with another man. As the
heartbroken client bashes the blinds on his window, he quips: “All right Curly, enough’s
enough. You can’t eat the venetian blinds. I just had ’em installed on
But Curly is small fry. Gittes discovers how murky the water
of life can get when he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband
Hollis, an engineer in the Water Department. Gittes warns her that sometimes it’s best to “let sleeping
dogs lie,” but little does he know. He duly snaps the bespectacled Hollis with
a pretty blonde and is happy that this particular job was a quick one, until he
realises that the woman that visited him wasn’t the real Mrs Mulwray (a
sumptuously doe-eyed Dunaway) after all but an imposter.
When Mr Mulwray’s body is found, Gittes decides to probe the
water division scheme but, as water baron Noah Cross (played by a creepily
benevolent Huston) ominously warns him: “You may think you know what
you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” That pretty much goes for the rest of the movie, as Gittes
unearths a whole world of trouble, including furious orange farmers, corrupt
officials and a vicious bad guy (Polanski’s cameo) who sends him home with a slice
missing from his nose.
There’s worse depravity to come and it’s nothing that can be
solved by one man alone, Gittes just doesn’t know it yet, though one doubts it
would stop him. He should have listened to his old partner when circumstances
forced him back to one of his old beats: “Forget it, Jake. It’s
With every scene, every line, loaded with meaning, full of
1930s glamour and intrigue yet timeless too with its universal dilemmas, Chinatown
is a piece of movie history that everyone with a respect for the art of film
should make a point of seeing. And if you’re a Jack Nicholson fan, well, you’ll
be swimming in gravy.
Repulsion will be released on 4 January 2013 at BFI and selected cinemas
nationwide as part of a major retrospective of Roman Polanski’s work at BFI
Southbank during January and February. See www.bfi.org.uk.