CHINATOWN (1974)

  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Writer: Robert Towne
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd, Joe Mantell, and Burt Young
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#21), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#78), 1 Oscar (Best Original Screenplay), 10 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Roman Polanski, Best Actor – Jack Nicholson, Best Actress – Faye Dunaway, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costumes, Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Starz, Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Maybe some people can talk about Roman Polanski’s movies and the things that have happened in his own life as two separate things, but I am not one of those people. We’ll talk about the actual movie Chinatown, I promise, but I have to deal with this first, and the story of that movie, while totally separate from Polanski’s own, is also bound up in it. Polanski is, indisputably, a master director, who has deserved all the accolades he has received over his long career. I don’t think any director could have made Chinatown, a genre exercise if ever there was one, feel so natural and have such real emotion.

Polanski grew up Jewish in Poland, and lost his mother when she was murdered in Auschwitz. He is believed to have based the iconic 1930s look of Faye Dunaway’s character in Chinatown on his memories of her. Chinatown was also Polanski’s first movie made back in Hollywood after the brutal 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, along with four friends at his home by members of the “Manson Family.” It was also on this movie that Polanski met and became friends with Jack Nicholson. It would be at Nicholson’s home (while the actor was out of town) in 1977 that the events would take place leading to Polanski’s conviction for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.

Polanski eventually pled guilty to the “lesser charge” of “unlawful sex with a minor,” but fled to France before sentencing after he learned that the Judge intended to reject his plea deal and sentence him to 50 years in prison. Much emphasis has been placed on this alleged injustice over the ensuing decades, particularly in movie circles where support for Polanski has remained nearly unanimous until very recently. Polanski would be awarded the 2003 Best Director Oscar for The Pianist (he did not attend the ceremony due to not being able to enter the US without being arrested), and receive a standing ovation in absentia. But I think it’s important to point out that Polanski has never denied having sex with a 13-year-old girl. It’s just that he’s always insisted that she consented. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s still rape. I would also point out that several more women have accused him of assaulting them when they were underage over the years. And maybe the movie industry’s “I know him, he’s cool,” myopia is finally breaking down in the age of “Me Too.” Polanski latest film, J’accuse (a period piece about the Dreyfus Affair), swept the Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) last year, but rather than receiving ovations, several prominent members of the French film industry walked out, while the venue was ringed with protestors.

Chinatown is probably the most famous “neo-noir,” bringing the tropes of the classic film noirs into a sunbaked, in color 1930s Los Angeles. It is set in what had been, until that time, a forgotten bit of LA history, the “Water Wars.” Los Angeles is a megalopolis that was basically built in the desert, that evolved without anyone planning for it. So local rich dude/Public Utilities Commissioner William Mulholland (after whom Mulholland Drive was named, ironically the location of Nicholson’s house where Polanski would get into trouble) surreptitiously bought the land in the Owens Valley many miles away and built the Los Angeles Aqueduct to provide the city with the water it needed to function. The movie heavily fictionalizes this history, adding a mysterious murder in the middle, as well as private detective Jake Gittes (Nicholson), who is maybe not that great of an actual detective but keeps investigating despite getting beat up a lot.

The mystery is sort of the point in Chinatown, but it’s not as if it’s one of those movies you can’t watch if you know how it ends. I’ve watched it at least three times over the years, and I’m still not tired of it. Nicholson gets hired by a lady (Diane Ladd) who claims to be the widow of a water commissioner named Mulwray, who got murdered. He investigates at the reservoir, where his nose gets sliced open by a hired thug (Polanski in a cameo). He then spends most of the movie with a weird bandage on his nose. He also meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway), who at first seems to be your standard femme fatale but has a lot more going on than that. They become romantically involved, to the consternation of her father Noah Cross (the director John Huston, in his best acting role), while at the same time Gittes figures out that Cross has been buying up orange farms in the then-agricultural San Fernando Valley. In the end, spoilers, Jake loses, Dunaway’s character dies, and Noah Cross takes possession of her daughter. One of Jake’s associates (Joe Mantell) delivers the famous final line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

There were those at the time that criticized Chinatown for aping the original film noirs of the 40s and 50s, with one reviewer nothing that it mostly made him wish he was watching The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, instead. But as we’ve gotten farther away from it, the distinctions blur. Today, it’s been as long since the release of Chinatown as it had been since the period this movie depicts at the time the movie was made. And it flawlessly depicts that Los Angeles, the one where everything is bleached by the sun, that feels more like a simulacrum of a city than a real one, where it always feels like a director is about to yell “cut,” yet the dust blows in and the residents can’t keep it up, even if they’re rich enough to afford their own Koi pond, like Noah Cross.

The other advantage the movie has is the performance of Nicholson and the character he helps create, a man Roger Ebert described as someone who “rolls around with the pigs but doesn’t like it.” He doesn’t bark into phones like Humphrey Bogart, he answers them very nicely. He ingratiates himself with the people he’s interviewing whenever he can, with that Nicholson smile. But he can’t quite contain his dislike of Cross, played by Huston as enormous and patrician, but unmistakably a sleazeball. In one memorable scene that continues to reverberate today, Nicholson shouts at him, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” To which Cross replies, “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future!”

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the definitive movie about early 20th-Century Los Angeles was made in the 1970s, rather than one of the many hundreds of movies actually made in LA at the time, but maybe we needed the color palette to really get the feel for the thing. This era of LA history has been back in fashion somewhat lately, with TV shows set in the city at the same time as Chinatown, including the new Perry Mason series and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. It’s fairly clear that these shows would not exist without Chinatown, which has also been cited by director Matt Reeves as the biggest influence on his upcoming Batman movie. Polanski’s movie isn’t just a tribute to film noir, but rather reimagines it for a new era of filmmaking. I don’t think it can, or should, be separated from Polanski’s crimes, but nor do I think it should be avoided by the modern cinephile. It remains essential forty-five years later. 

7 thoughts on “CHINATOWN (1974)

  1. You bring up an interesting question: Should art be enjoyed/respected for it’s own sake and not the artist’s? Polanski, like Woody Allen, is a horrible human being, yet his films remain among my favorites like this one and Rosemary’s Baby (see the Kevin Bacon six degrees connection there?) At the time I first saw those two films, it was not known he was a pedophile, and I haven’t watched any of his films since then. However, with Allen, Midnight In Paris (2011) is one of my favorites of all of his. Again, should I ignore the artist for the sake of the art? It’s a complicated issue. On the other hand, I have no desire to re-watch any of Kevin Spacey’s films and certainly would not see any future films he might make, which is highly unlikely.

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    1. Everyone’s take is going to be different on this. For me, I want to know everything I can about the context of these things and then I can watch them with that in mind. I also think that its a different calculus watching someone’s earlier work than it is for someone to continue giving them money to produce new work and supporting them. This is not a direct comparison, but I recall having the argument with people that I would have been OK with a football team I root for signing Michael Vick after he went to jail for animal abuse and went to prison, because he had been convicted and punished for his crimes. Polanski, on the other hand, was convicted and is a fugitive from justice, so it seems really bizarre to me to just give him Oscars like everything is fine.

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  2. Postscript: Regarding Midnight in Paris. I think that if Allen had played the main protagonist in this film instead of Own Wilson playing Woody Allen playing the main protagonist, I would not have enjoyed it.

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