Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)


Jack Nicholson (J. J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross). Screenplay by Robert Towne. Directed by Roman Polanski. Rating: 15. Running time: 130 minutes.

Oh the plight of the amateur film critic. The plight of any film critic! What are we to do when facing beasts as grand as Chinatown? Nothing I am capable of writing could ever come close to adequately reflecting the status of this film as quite possibly the greatest achievement in modern noir.

So be it. I’ll settle for some throwaway comments instead that convey only an ounce of the respect I hold for it. Better that than making a measly attempt at showering sufficient praise upon it, only to fall flat on my face.

This is the style of the Maltese Falcon pumped up to loft-smashing levels, but the difference is that it is mixed, for once, with a story of genuine significance for us. No longer do we watch the hats, cigars and pistols without too much care for the plot. Now we finally face the real excitement of being intrigued by the substance of a noir that starts off playing on Vertigoesque voyeurism before ascending to a more conventional murder mystery. The spice is that it involves corporate interests, a suspicious femme that in the post-Production Code era is now genuinely seductive, and the visual blend of a sun-kissed LA and the surrounding barren deserts. The black and white of the 40s is swapped only for black and yellow.

And then, of course, there is Nicholson, in pre-Cuckoo, pre-Shining and pre-everything days. He’s as watchable as ever, and even this early on he carries that dash of madness and spontaneity, and that ability to fuse laughs and smiles with the sinister, that has made him oh so special down the years. He plays a man caught up in an obligatory web of deception and corruption, the film being driven by his danger and pleasure-laden pursuit of the truth as to why a man was murdered and by who.

When you’ve seen enough noirs you grow to know what they do. You get familiar with the plot tricks and character traits, and if too many are watched too quickly the fun of the genre can easily dry up. But somehow this Polanski potion suffers no such setbacks. It just fucking works and manages to be everything a noir should be. It might be ineffable, but to watch it is to inevitably join that club of speechless, spellbound admirers, that I am now a metaphorical card-carrying member of.

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