Jack Nicholson is one of those actors that leads every movie that he’s in. From “Easy Rider” in the 1960s, to “The Departed” in the 2000s, a slew of critically acclaimed films can be identified as a “Nicholson movie.” “Chinatown” (1974) is, in my opinion, the textbook example of this category.
“Chinatown” was directed by Roman Polanski, who is known for using Neo-Noir as a theme for most of his movies. The 1974 film revolves around the growing issue of droughts in Los Angeles county. A private investigator, Jake Gittes (Nicholson), is hired to investigate the clearly shady undertone of the dry spell, which included murder, land deals and overall corruption by the wealthy and powerful.
Gittes finds himself brushing shoulders with morally-unjust detectives, slimy criminals, and the aristocracy of Southern California. However, the odds that seem to stack against him do not seem to slow him down at all.
Like I stated before, this movie is driven by Nicholson’s prowess and mastery of the art of acting. His skill not only lies in his delivery, but his stage direction and facial expressions. He is aware that acting does not only lie in the ability to read lines.
The film’s leading lady, Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway), also helps keep this film trudging along at a steady pace. In some scenes she depicts herself as an innocent woman caught up in a heaping mess, and in others, she is a mysterious temptress with clear ulterior motives. I found myself loving her in one scene, and hating her in the next.
Lies are what give this film its charms. Most of the scenes in the film start with Gittes entering a place that he has no business being, but barrages a doorman or home resident with white lies, and eventually finds himself inside. That is, until someone calls his bluff and finds his way out, but not before he gets what he needs. This film would not be as effective if Gittes were an honest man.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for someone who has yet to see it, so to sum things up, all of Gittes’ hard work dissolves into nothing in a moment. This is one of the first movies that I’ve seen in which a hero, who would usually prevail against tough odds, is defeated. According to Polanski, the film’s ending was originally a happy one, but he changed it to give the film a stronger sense of anticipation, and yet, disappointment.
My appreciation for this film is slightly biased because I put Nicholson in such high regard. However, many consider “Chinatown” to be one of the definitive films for this genre. It offers a unique perspective of the world of Los Angeles, and just how different it is on the inside.
Every week, Taste of Cinema does not just review classic films, but appreciate them as the works of art that they are. Previous entries of Taste of Cinema can be found here.