Review: Chinatown (1974)

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I once had to wear a bandage on my nose similar to Jake’s, but I don’t think it helped me look quite as imposing!

Written By: Roman Polanski & Robert Towne
Directed By: Roman Polanski

Noir was dead and buried by 1974, unless of course you are one to count the atrocious 1973 Double Indemnity remake as a return to noir form? If you are, then I don’t like you, no way around that. For those of us with functioning brains, that movie sucked and was outdone in every way possible by the true return to noir in the form of Chinatown. It is both a traditional noir and a non-conventional one. It is because of its willingness to adhere to classic noir rules that people flocked to it, but it is in its ability to buck noir conventions and think differently that people loved it.

Like all noir films, Chinatown is slick, very slick. Fast characters and fast dialogue are the norm, but in Chinatown the characters have grown up a little and while it is subtle in new ways much of the 1940’s subtlety of the noir is gone. Sex is no longer implied through dialogue, it now happens, rape and incest are still implied however. We see heavy violence, but the clues that lead to the situations of heavy violence are still laid down subtly. There is a deep wit about Chinatown, characters include words that they should never know in ordinary conversations and no one ever says what they actually mean. Chinatown embraces every noir dialogue standard, but it changes the subject matter and makes its content a little more implicit, it avoids being a standard noir by working with the genre to become something more.

At the heart of Chinatown is the performance of Jack Nicholson, and it is amazing to watch him in action before he thought overacting was the key to every role. His Jake Gittes is a simple man, not stupid, but simple. He likes things cut and dry and he doesn’t have much time for beating around the bush. But, unlike the classic noir detective he isn’t a hard shell, there is a softness to him. The classics played by Bogey and others had heart, they just hid it deeply. Jake has heart and he wears it on his sleeve, it doesn’t take much to make him feel sympathy and therefore he is quite different from the amoral noir detective of old. Jake becomes our sympathetic anchor in the film, he carries us along for the ride, even when we aren’t sure if we like where it is going. This is Jack Nicholson in his finest role and one of the best noir detective ever put to screen.

The rest of the cast is more then sufficient, John Huston is brilliant as the sly, clearly evil, old man. Faye Dunaway is icy, but much like Jake, Evelyn’s ice slowly melts to reveal not a traditional femme fatale, but rather a scared woman who we want to root for. The bit players all know their roles and they play them well, including Roman Polanski himself as the knife wielding midget who allows for Nicholson to play the majority of the film under a bandage. They talk fast, they move freely and they inhabit the 1930’s flawlessly.

Another area where Chinatown excels is in its set design and its ability to capture the look of 1930’s Los Angeles. The score of Jerry Goldsmith splendidly creates an atmosphere for the entire film, a foreboding that should have let us all know early on that Chinatown wouldn’t contain any sort of happy ending. The cinematography of John Alonzo is excellent in parts, but there are moments when I felt he was too loose with the lighting and the brightness. It was never a major detriment, but there were times when I didn’t feel he was in tune with the actors or the score and the film dropped out of looking like a noir for a moment here and there.

The noir genre has enjoyed revivals from time to time, the most recent being 2005’s Brick. But, it is a genre that will never be as popular as it was in the 40’s & 50’s. Chinatown is a great entry in the genre, a noir that works with the traditions of noir and goes outside of convention to remain different. What says the most about Chinatown is that while it is a child of the 1970’s, it fits in just fine with any classic noir from the 40’s or 50’s. that is a testament to the fine craftsmanship of Chinatown that goes beyond any words I could type.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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