I hereby forgive my film teacher for making me suffer once more through Donnie Darko. The poor man has to show us movies in a room with wired emergency lights that never show off, on a crap little projector, but seeing Chinatown on anything bigger than the tiny-ass T.V. I keep in my apartment gets a pass. I love this film so much I wouldn't mind if we just watched it the entire semester; hell, I love it so much he could have run Donnie Darko again and I wouldn't complain. Too much.
Far and away the greatest of the neo-noirs, Chinatown deserves a place in the cinema hall of fame just because Jack Nicholson plays a character other than Jack Nicholson. While Jack Nicholson the character is certainly a load of fun, it never ceases to amaze me watching his performance here. Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private eye in Los Angeles who makes a living outing cheating spouses for paying clients. One day a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the chief engineer of the town's water supply, stops by to hire Gittes, and it launches him into an endlessly tangled web of deceit, corruption, and murder.
Gittes gets evidence of Mulwray's adultery, but the evidence makes it way to press. Gittes winds up in an argument in a barber shop with another patron who insults Gittes' profession. The detective blows up at the man, a banker, and asks who's the real scum, a private eye who uncovers truth, or a banker who forecloses on the poor. It's a bit obvious, but moments like these show screenwriter Robert Towne adding more than just the usual flourish to the proceedings. Then the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) shows up and sues Gittes for slander.
Slowly Polanski peels back various, seemingly disconnected elements into a sinister whole: we learn of L.A.'s water drought, yet Jake notices water dumped out of the reservoir as he spies on Mr. Mulwray. Mulwray eventually turns up dead, and Evelyn decides to drop the suit with Gittes, in order to keep a private eye out of her affairs...
Eventually--and without giving too much away though, honestly, it's been 35 years--Gittes uncovers a plot to dry out the San Fernando Valley to bankrupt its farmers, only for some ruthless businessmen to take over and bring the water back, making ludicrous profits. A similar scandal occurred in the city in 1908, and Towne transplants it to 1930s, possibly to comment on how the power elite could still eke out a profit in the Depression. In the end, just about every established character relationship gets turned on its head. I've seen the film three times, but Polanski structures Towne's brilliant script in such a way that I'm still-- well, not surprised, certainly, but still floored by its perfection.
The ending is cynical, borderline nihilistic, but I think it fits both the film and the general path of Polanski's life at that point. Five years earlier, members of Charles Manson's cult brutally murdered his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child. In grief, Polanski stayed in Europe. Then he came back to make this film and place himself back on top, only to get hit with charges of sex with an underage girl, which led to permanent exile. Polanski had reason enough to be dark what with his wife's death, but history has only made this period darker.
But regardless of his personal flaws, Polanski is a great filmmaker. He got his start with critically acclaimed European thrillers like Knife in the Water and Repulsion, only to score a smash hit in America with Rosemary's Baby, the film that not only established Polanski as a hit-maker but producer Robert Evans as well, a man who would go on to bring this film to light as well as the Godfather films. What I noticed about his direction here is, of course, his use of shadow and lighting (it is a film noir, after all).
Particularly of interest is how Polanski and his cinematographer John A. Alonzo conveyed so much foreboding in Gittes' suits. At the start of the film, Jake wears a white suit, but the more complex the story becomes the darker the suit he sports. Even when Gittes doesn't have time to change they cast Nicholson in such light that his gray suit can look black. Whever Gittes gets closer to the truth, the color lightens. Following this pattern, you can tell Jake is wrong about 20 minutes from the end when he confidently declares he knows the identity of the killer; when he does so, his suit is fully black.
At the start of this I called Chinatown "the best of the neo-noirs," but I have a hard time thinking of it as such. Neo-noir generally works as a broad homage to classic noir; the best certainly work as their own films, but consider Sin City, Blade Runner and the entire filmography of the Coen brothers. All of them draw clear influences--and most downright reference, movies like The Third Man and Double Indemnity. Chinatown, however, works completely as its own film, and I believe it belongs on the list of the classics.
[Note: I just realized I went through this entire piece and never mentioned Jerry Goldsmith's score. It's phenomenal, full of misleading cues that keep you constantly on your toes. It only adds to Polanski's thoroughly Hitchcockian feel.]