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USA 1974
Directed by
Roman Polanski
131 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Chinatown is one of the standout films of the 1970s and also one of the finest neo-noirs ever made. From Robert Towne's screenplay to Richard Sylbert’s production design, to John Alonzo's cinematography to Jerry Goldsmith’s score everything clicks into place. Yet Roman Polanski’s film is no mere retread of the much-loved Raymond Chandler/Humphrey Bogart style of pulp fiction. It has its own distinctively modern identity,

Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) calling herself Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray to get the dirt on her husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), the L.A. Water Commissioner. But it turns out that Gittes has been set up and he is determined to find out why. He enlists the help of the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) but in true femme fatale style she appears to be part of the web of deception.

From its familiarly Chandleresque beginning (compare The Big Sleep, 1946) Towne’s script twists and turns as it reveals layer after layer of deception but in a refreshingly novel way that allows the film to traverse a variety of settings from dimly-lit interiors to high-key exteriors that effectively re-imagine the film noir for a modern audience (the film's tragic ending was provided by Polanski, Towne's original ending allowed Evelyn Mulwray to escape).

Both Nicholson and Dunaway (in role which producer Robert Evans originally intend for his wife, Ali McGraw, who had run off with Strve McQueen) are excellent in the lead roles, bringing a convincing level of humanity to their characters whilst seeing John Huston,
the director of the classic noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941), in front of the camera, is not only a treat for film buffs (a touch that, like Nicholson's bandaged nose, is symptomatic of Polanksi’s sense of humour, but he is very good as the corrupt paterfamilias, Noah Cross.

Although the allusion to a symbolic hell, represented by Chinatown, is perhaps a little overdone there is no question that for the genre, this is an exemplary film.

FYI: Polanski plays the hood who slices Jake Gittes’ nose; Towne picked up the Oscar for Best Screenplay, whilst Nicholson went on to direct a not-so-successful sequel, The Two Jakes, in 1990.




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