Loosely based around the California water wars, Roman Polanski’s final American film stars Jack Nicholson as Private Investigator Jake Gittes. Gittes is hired by a woman claiming to be the wife of the chief engineer of Los Angeles Water and Power as she believes her husband is having an affair. Gittes uncovers the alleged affair which opens up a twisting tale of deception, double crossing, profiteering and murder. Often sited as one of the greatest Neo-Noir and mystery films of all time, it helped to cement Jack Nicholson’s status as an A List star and nearly forty years on still has a timeless feel and wonderfully layered curiosity about it.
Although I thought Chinatown was an excellent film I found myself zoning in and out of it as I watched. I don’t know why though as there is very little I didn’t like and I think this says more about my frame of mind at the time than the film itself. Despite my concentration waning, I noted several wonderful things about Polanski’s classic Noir gem.
Something I really enjoyed was the period setting. The film had a distinct late 30s or early 40s feel which extended not just to the props and sets but also the filming style, acting and soundtrack. I enjoy seeing the history of the city that is cinema’s adopted home and Polanski discovers many great locations and houses along the way which bring the city’s history to life. Even the colour palate suits the period and setting down to a tee. The atmosphere too is tense and sticky, almost claustrophobic at times despite the wide open spaces found in many of the scenes. Something which really helps to set the story in its time is the soundtrack, one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. If you had to describe a Noir soundtrack then you’d pretty much come up with exactly the one found in Chinatown. Deep, slow double bass in interrupted by occasional rattles and woodblock before being accompanied by low noted, wondering piano and bold brass tones. It sounds sublime.
The plot is where I found myself wavering at times. I didn’t guess any of the twists which is unusual as I tend to have a keen eye for mystery films. One of the reasons that I didn’t though may have something to do with my slight boredom. As I mentioned in my opening though I don’t level the blame at the film on this occasion as I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to watch the film but felt rushed to do so. The plot winds and turns down blind alleys and is satisfactorily self referencing. Characters who you may forget about pop back up unexpectedly and there are some nice twists towards the end. The mystery itself unravels slowly and deliberately, taking its time to reveal all of its secrets. It also focuses on an interesting subject at an extremely interesting time for Los Angeles.
Jack Nicholson gives a fantastic performance as Gittes. He is on screen for every scene and the film is really shown from his point of view. His presence and power is palpable but the subtlety with which he plays with the pawns in his game is fantastic to watch. Faye Dunaway is also quite good but like the rest of the cast is completed overshadowed by Nicholson. The other star of the film though is Director Roman Polanski. His masterful knowledge of the genre and setting shines through the lens and onto the screen and the credit for the film’s success rests firmly on his shoulders. Robert Towne’s script though is what brings the film together and is something I want to revisit as I don’t feel as though I gave it my full attention.