Chinatown (1974)    3 Stars


Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

Synopsis: A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder.

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Jake Gittes is a kind of celebrity private eye in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a prototype in a way for Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincenne in L. A. Confidential. He’s operating in 1930s Los Angeles, and has a kind of laidback approach to his job which is something of a front. We never learn the details of what happened in Gittes’ past, but there was a woman involved, and she didn’t survive knowing him and everything he does seems designed to disguise a past that haunts him. On paper, it doesn’t at first seem the type of role to hand to Jack Nicholson (The Shining, The Departed), but toning down his devil-may-care tendencies works in Nicholson’s favour, constantly reminding us of the bruised soul lurking beneath the flashy suits and fast-talking glibness.

Into Gittes’ office comes Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the city’s Water Department. Evelyn believes her husband is cheating and hires Gittes to spy on him. Pretty soon, Gittes has a snap of Mulwray with a young woman. But the picture finds its way into the papers, and Gittes learns that the woman who hired him was an impostor when he’s paid a visit by the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway — Three Days of the Condor, Network). Peeved at being duped and at the stain on his reputation, Gittes begins investigating who was behind the scam. But then Hollis Mulwray is found dead, and the fact that the Water and Power Department is secretly dumping gallons of fresh water into the ocean suggests some conspiracy is taking place.

Chinatown luxuriates in a period detail steeped in nostalgia, bringing to life an era usually only accessible through scratchy black-and-white films. Director Roman Polanski, who appears to be a man of questionable morals but is an accomplished director, has an eye for time and place, and makes good use of Los Angeles’ 1930s architecture, without ever ramming it down our throats. Chinatown isn’t a movie about the 1930s, it just happens to take place in that era.

While Nicholson seems to slip easily into the character of Gittes, Faye Dunaway fares less well as Evelyn Mulwray (the real one), who also happens to be the daughter of Noah Cross (an agreeably oily John Huston — The Kremlin Letter, Breakout), the man who, together with Mulwray, once owned the city’s water department. The nature of the role calls for Evelyn to be something of a spiky character, but there should also be an underlying vulnerability, which is never in evidence in Dunaway’s performance. She’s too strong a personality to play the victim convincingly, which means she never really gains our sympathy.

Of course the strength of Chinatown lies in the writing, for which Robert Towne won an Oscar. In Gittes he created a deceptively intuitive detective — who is perpetually one step ahead of the audience — and was fortunate enough to be working in an era when studios and producers were less inclined to allow financial considerations interfere with the creative process. Ironically, for a writer renowned as a script doctor, called in by studios to salvage scripts that weren’t working out (he made an un-credited contribution to Bonnie and Clyde), Towne never really came close to recapturing the quality and nuances of his work on Chinatown.

(Reviewed 21st October 2012)