A private detective hired to expose an adulterer in 1930s Los Angeles finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder.
This is a film that has, unfortunately, stood the test of time. I say “unfortunately” because the subject matter of a film released in 1974 that takes place in the 1930s is still relevant today. Unfortunately, Chinatown was also directed by Roman Polanski, pre-rape allegation, and that is something I can never undo.
Chinatown is the epitome of neo-noir. It is absolutely a film noir, but shown through the lens of the 1970s. The color palette is muted, to give it the same feeling the film would have if it was in black and white, like most noir films are. Shades of brown, tan, and grey fill the screen in every scene. The only time any brighter colors are truly used is merely when the sun is shining on the seedy city of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Add to that venetian blinds in nearly every scene that takes place indoors and funky camera angles that show how far technology had come in the 1970s, and you got yourself a modern looking noir.
Jack Nicholson played Jake Gittes, a private investigator who used to be a police officer working in Chinatown. He alludes to having left the force due to corruption, specifically in his area of the city. He now spends his time as a private investigator. Faye Dunaway played our would-be Femme Fatale, Evelyn Mulwray, whose husband has mysteriously died. (Now, if you’ve never seen this film before and don’t want the fantastically iconic plot twist ruined, jump down to the next paragraph.) The genius in Dunaway’s performance was the subtleties that you pick up on, once you know the twist ending. Right from the start, anytime Evelyn’s father is mentioned, she begins to stutter or stumble across her words, just a little bit. The best moment, in my opinion, was when Jake brings up Evelyn’s father, played by John Huston, shortly after they have had sex, she covers her bare chest with her arms, when just moments ago she seemed perfectly comfortable in her bare skin. It’s moments like that that made Dunaway’s performance in this film so masterful.
Chinatown is one of those films that, as a viewer, you pick up on different aspects every time you watch it. You pick up on little things the actors are doing, or different storytelling elements used in the script. And that is what truly makes this film genius.