Chinatown (1974)
February 5, 2015 6:38 PM - Subscribe

Local Private Investigator gets caught up in a water-rights fiasco. But that's just the beginning. Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir mystery film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. (wiki)

It's the film that cemented Jack Nicholson's reputation as the best American actor of his generation, and it was the last film Roman Polanski would make in the US before he fled the country in disgrace. Now, almost 40 years later, their 1974 release Chinatown has now been named the greatest film ever made. (The Guardian)

Chinatown is a superb, private eye mystery and modern-day film noir thriller. Its original, award-winning screenplay by Robert Towne is a throwback that pays homage to the best Hollywood film noirs from the pens of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the 30s and 40s. The film declined to provide a tagline, instead choosing imagery over words on its poster, which featured in 40's art deco, the detective - his back facing the viewer, smoking a cigarette, with the smoke emanating from it forming the visage of the heroine, signifying the setting, the mood, and symbolism of the film without uttering a single phrase. (filmsite)

• "J. J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.

• "Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to Towne, intended to initially seem the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually made the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role; but Polanski insisted on Dunaway.

• "Noah Cross": Towne said that Huston was, after Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film and that he made the Cross character menacing, through his courtly performance.

• Polanski appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose. The effect was accomplished with a special knife which indeed could have cut Nicholson's nose if Polanski had not held it correctly. (wiki)
posted by valkane (11 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is one of the "hard to separate the art from the artist" moments for me, as this is such a brilliant film, but Roman Polanski. Nicholson just owned Hollywood for about 5 or 6 years running there--Easy Rider and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest bookending his other awesome performances in things like The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, and Chinatown. This movie still feels fresh and shocking every time I watch it. Interesting that Jane Fonda was considered as Evelyn. Usually in a great movie I cannot fathom anyone in one of the roles other than the actors who were cast, but I can sort of imagine Fonda pulling it off.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:03 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Chinatown is the movie that Syd Fields examines in his classic book Screenplay.
posted by JHarris at 11:05 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not much to say about the movie or Polanski himself that others haven't said at some point or other. But I will add that one of the strangest "obvious in retrospect" feelings I've ever had was when I found out that Doom's plot in Roger Rabbit was inspired by an unproduced sequel to Chinatown.
posted by sparkletone at 11:49 PM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

Chinatown is one of those rare masterpieces which lives up to the hype. It feels fresh and alive in a way that masterpieces rarely ever do. This is literally a perfect movie, from the snaky opening to the horrific ending to the sheep running amok in the courthouse to John Huston roving about like a hyperintelligent, superficially polite, Neutral Evil sasquatch.

The Two Jakes is a pretty good movie, too, just not in the same league as Chinatown.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is one of those other rare masterpieces which etc. etc. etc.

What all three of those movies share is a sense of Los Angeles as an excitingly corrupt space whose corruption is embedded in its very construction. Water rights, gas rights, public transportation...these have all been prearranged by the Powers That Be. Don't you worry a thing, baby. Don't try to fight it.

Angel and Veronica Mars share some of this sense as well.

Strangely, though, I feel like James Ellroy novels come from a different tradition.


Of course Polanski himself is a fugitive rapist, but Chinatown was made before all that, no? Well, either way, he remains to be my go-to example for a bad person who has made great art. That's a whole other topic unto itself.

I read a good book on Polanski which described how semi-autobiographical many of his movies feel. A key recurring theme was that the quintessential Polanski hero is simultaneously victim and perpetrator. I wonder if these ease with which Polanski skipped the country came in part from that self-conception. I also wonder if his mental state had been affected by the fact that, years prior, he had been accused by many (but not the police) of having a played a part in the murder of his wife and unborn child.

I am NOT defending Polanski in any way. What I am saying is that it's interesting how casually, from a mental perspective, that he was able to plead guilty and then skip the country. It's not merely a rich person's reaction, not merely a criminal's reaction, not merely a survivor's reaction. It is the reaction of somebody who has been mentally prepared for a very long time to become a fugitive for the rest of his life. Even before he skipped the country, when you see footage of him going to and from the courthouse, his body language is like that of somebody has, in a way, been here before.


I'm currently reading Helter Skelter. It's interesting that Polanski is a "character" in that story, although obviously it's before the rape.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:22 AM on February 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I disagree that it's clear that Polanski had been ready for ages to skip town. Seems to me that that situation is sort of like having a baby for the first time -- you're never really ready and don't really know what's going to happen or how it will turn out, you just do it. JMHO.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:15 AM on February 6, 2015

Chinatown is the movie that Syd Fields examines in his classic book Screenplay.

And ignores the filmed version because it doesn't fit in with his cockamamie vision of the perfect three act structure with a defined midpoint, instead focusing on the original script, as I recall.
posted by maxsparber at 8:09 AM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

This and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are my two favorite movies of all time. Why yes, I am from Los Angeles...
posted by town of cats at 3:59 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

The documentary/film essay LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF has an interesting take on Chinatown, in that extrapolating out the various wheeling and dealings of LA land-use laws and water rights into a different time period, and as a result of corrupt back-alley shadow dealing, it absolved the citizens of LA who voted for and supported the various programs that demolished the public transit and endorsed corrupt land-grabs and deals. Once you create the fiction that it was all some high-up back room deals you can shrug and not bother with the more irksome fact that it was tedious civil laws and public votes (and support) that created the problems while at the same time instilling an idea that these forces or inevitable and there's nothing the average person can do (or be at blame for)
posted by The Whelk at 10:50 PM on February 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Chinatown theme
posted by growabrain at 7:17 PM on November 2, 2015

Gittes appears in every scene of the film
posted by growabrain at 1:24 PM on January 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I watched it again, for the Nth time last night. It’s simply magnificent. I was looking for an article about the script structure. Here’s an interview with Robert Towne
posted by growabrain at 1:42 AM on June 30, 2020

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