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'Chinatown': 40 years old, but still unforgettable (review)

Raleigh’s Colony Theatre aired “Chinatown” this week, the latest installment of their Cool Classics film series. Roman Polanski’s noir masterpiece, though featuring a much younger Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, didn’t feel aged. Like a fine wine, “Chinatown” glistened with superb acting, intricate plot, and stylized setting. Truly deserving of its elite status, Polanski’s visionary flick delivers an enthralling glimpse and unique take on the 1920’s water wars.

Chinatown 1974 movie poster
Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

“Chinatown” opens in the office of private investigator Jake “J.J.” Gittes (Jack Nicholson). As might be expected for a man of his profession, he has shown his pal Curly (Burt Young) photos of his cheating wife. Enter the purported “Evelyn Mulwray” (Diane Ladd), who struts in and hires Gittes to prove her husband’s unfaithfulness. Surprisingly, Gittes asks the supposed Mrs. Mulwray if she loves her husband. When she replies yes, he instructs her to go home and forget about the case. Mulwray refuses, Jake takes the contract, and throws chief engineer for L.A.’s Department of Water and Power Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) into scandal.

Much to J.J. Gittes’ chagrin, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) arrives, confirming the two had never met. She proceeds to slap Gittes with a lawsuit, and the PI realizes he’s been duped. J.J. ventures out to question Hollis, though his pursuit eventually leads to a reservoir where Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) reveals that Mr. Mulwray has drowned. Suspecting murder, Gittes slogs through a maze of corruption, at the heart of which is the Mulwray family and low water supply.

Roman Polanski’s tour de force depicts L.A.’s water wars in a winding fashion. Audiences plunge into a convoluted conspiracy along with protagonist Jake Gittes, so that as the plot chugs along details pop into focus. The delicate web of corruption leaves a smeared trail of clues, and the final reveal shocks upon the first viewing. While this is a spoiler free zone, suffice it to say the mystery ends in a sickening turn of events.

However, the bleak atmosphere painted by “Chinatown” is precisely the reason the 1974 movie proudly sits in the canon of great cinema. The name derives from an unknown, though briefly touched upon, event from Gittes’ past. Jake mentions that some incident occurred in his police days which culminated in tragedy. The finale of “Chinatown” follows suit, and the desolate ending is emphasized by the iconic last line: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” A prominent theme of the entire movie, Gittes suggests that the faux-Evelyn Mulwray overlook her husband’s potential infidelity, and J.J. is continually instructed to halt his investigation into Hollis’ death. Interestingly, the original script featured a “happy ending,” but writer Robert Towne left the project after conflict with Polanski. The darker, though much more unexpected and therefore stronger ending was actually written by the director himself.

With the phenomenal script and engaging plot, acting brightens the solid foundation. Primarily, Jack Nicholson delivers as memorable character J.J. Gittes. Though it isn’t specifically stated, there’s the sense that the elaborate intrigue isn’t the PI’s usual case. Our hero is more familiar with snapping photos of unfaithful partners, but resolves to uncover the treachery into which he stumbles. Unfortunately the poor guy receives a constant beating, physically mentally. Nicholson perfectly portrays the investigator as fatigued, especially toward the latter part of the film. Additionally, Gittes offers genuine humor despite the heavy content. In an early scene he recalls a sexual joke relayed at the barbershop in a fairly unfortunate situation. His unconventional investigative techniques provide further chuckles, such as barging into offices, annoying secretaries, and stealing government property.

The American Film Institute awarded “Chinatown” second place on its list of best mystery films, and after watching the powerful cinematic piece, it’s evident why. Jerry Goldsmith’s varied soundtrack features plodding, minimalist piano pieces, jazzy numbers, and waltzing love music. On-screen happenings pair wonderfully with the score, and pinstriped suits and fedoras abound, creating an artfully constructed experience. “Chinatown” is visually, audibly, and emotionally smart.

One of the strongest aspects, however, happens to also be a slight weakness: acting. Faye Dunaway wows in her role, with substantial development in relatively little screen time. Aside from Jack Nicholson and Dunaway, most of the cast, regardless of role importance, aren’t awarded many scenes. That’s not to say the cast is weak, just that a strong focus on Nicholson and Dunaway detracts from potential character development outside Mrs. Mulwray and J.J. Gittes. Luckily, their prowess drives “Chinatown” to near-perfection, establishing Polanski’s crime tale as a benchmark for the entire genre. Despite countless efforts, it hasn’t been replicated and likely won’t. A must-see for any fan of noir, mystery flicks, or cinema as a whole, “Chinatown” packs both entertainment and replay value into a riveting two hours.

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