Directed by Roman Polanski from a script by Robert Towne, Chinatown is yet another beloved film that I am ashamed to admit I had not seen until now. Luckily Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies gives me the perfect opportunity to correct these injustices. Chinatown’s reputation precedes it – the famous final line is forever etched in the cultural zeitgeist, and the controversial twist is still a disturbing shocker for those who have managed to remain unspoiled. But apart from being an excellent example of neo-noir, Chinatown is also a fascinating relic of two bygone eras.
Set in 1937 in Los Angeles, Jack Nicholson stars as J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who makes a reasonable living catching adulterous spouses in compromising positions. When a woman (Diane Ladd) hires Jake to trail her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), Jake ends up in the middle of a much larger case involving stolen identity, fraud, murder, and even more upsetting crimes. Upon meeting the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), Jake finds himself sinking deeper into the mystery than is necessarily healthy.
They Came Together, David Wain’s recent rom-com spoof, was very critical of the trope wherein the setting of a film is described as another character. I don’t disagree that critics are often overly reliant on that easy conceit in their analyses of film, but I’m going to do it right now. Because Los Angeles really is a character in Chinatown. I swear! I mean, not literally – that would be ridiculous (but kind of cool – dibs on that screenplay). One of the focal points of the narrative revolves around the ownership of land all across the county, and a serious drought (sound familiar) in the region has everyone on edge. And the city has personality – particularly the dreaded Chinatown neighborhood. You can’t deny Los Angeles’s omni-presence in the narrative.
But the viewer actually has three Los Angeleses to contend with. There’s the Los Angeles of 1937, when the movie takes place; the Los Angeles of 1974, when the movie was made; and the Los Angeles of whenever you are watching the film – 2014 in my case.
I have lived in LA for 7+ years, and I still get a kick out of seeing my (relatively) new home in movies. The fact that the entire Hollywood system acts as a kind of time capsule for the giant film set that I live in never fails to entertain me. And Chinatown is no exception. The clapboard homes and simple architecture that the city was built upon in the early 20th century still existed when Polanski made his movie, and much of it still exists today. Sure, the film is rather limited in how much it can show in any given moment due to gradual contemporization of the city, but many of those physical features are timeless.
Chinatown is great in its ability to show us how much (or how little) Los Angeles has changed, but it does the same for its actors. The movie was made pretty early on in the careers of both Nicholson and Dunaway, so it provides a great opportunity to see how each actor has grown.
For Dunaway, the growth is already occurring. Chinatown was released only seven years after Dunaway’s breakout performance in Bonnie and Clyde, but you can already see an actress who is incredibly confident and mature. Dunaway was no slouch as Bonnie Parker, but as Evelyn Mulwray, Dunaway drops all of the exuberance and innocence, and builds a deeply layered character. In these later days of her career, Dunaway has picked up a reputation for being big and over the top, but anyone who thinks that need only watch her facial expressions here. Watching Chinatown with the full knowledge of Evelyn’s secret exposes all of the nuance Dunaway brings to the project.
And speaking of actors who are sometimes larger than life, how about Nicholson? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so reserved. I have more experience with Nicholson’s career than I do Dunaway’s, so it’s interesting to chart how he evolves between Chinatown and today. Nicholson’s face would go on to become almost synonymous with madness and sinister intentions after movies Iike The Shining and Batman, but here he is the straight forward hero. Jake Gittes has almost become the cliche noir private eye, despite the fact that the film was made 30 years after the genre first emerged. He is an essentially good man who gets in over his head, but you never lose sight of the fact that he cares. And the very notion that I can believe that the man who played Jack Torrance and the Joker isn’t plotting to kill everyone around him is a testament to Nicholson’s abilities.
Chinatown is a classic, and deservedly so. Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo capture some beautiful images that still impress 40 years later, and Towne’s script is rich with mystery and emotion. But none of it would work without those indelible performance, including Los Angeles’s portrayal of itself.