Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of a number of films including Casablanca, Soylent Green, and King Kong with final lines so iconic, I knew them long before I first saw the movies. Luckily in the case of Chinatown, there’s very little context to this line so the ultimate conclusion of the movie can still be surprising. Which is good because this movie is a mystery, a genre where it’s especially important the ending isn’t forecast.
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a P.I. in 1930’s Los Angeles hired to spy on a Hollis Mullwray by his wife suspecting him of having an affair. Mullwray just happens to also have a place of authority with the L.A. water department. However after his inspection, he meets the real Mrs. Evelyn Mullwray (Faye Dunaway). Soon after, her husband is found dead under suspicious circumstances and Jake begins an investigation into a larger conspiracy involving the water department while simultaneously getting closer with Evelyn.
Right from the opening scene this film is taking its cues from the classic film noirs, The Maltese Falcon in the opening to be specific. Hell, that films’ director John Huston even co-stars here. And the homage to this genre continues throughout most of the film, mimicking the story style, lighting and use of shadows, and even archetypes. And in this regard, Chinatown hits its mark perfectly as this movie is dripping with atmosphere. You feel the mood of 1930s L.A., courtesy of the great production design, costuming, a very competent screenplay, and especially the music: smooth, meditative jazz like many of the great film noirs, good enough that I might like to find the soundtrack. This is a very nice looking and very nice sounding film. But the principal problem lies in the story. Simply put, it’s not that compelling a narrative. It’s business tycoons embedded in a massive money laundering scheme with some murders tossed in and it’s not the most interesting mystery to follow. The L.A. water department as the centre of the whole conspiracy I feel was very timely when this film was made, or a reference to real events, however it’s not able to inspire a really exciting or accessible plot. It’s not until late in the film when a couple extra dimensions make themselves apparent that the drama starts to heat up. Additionally the film suffers from slow pacing and a lack of interesting characterization.
This is one of the more subdued Jack Nicholson performances, and though I appreciate his desire to take himself seriously, there’s something mesmerizing in his usual manic eccentricity that I miss here. He’s still charming and intelligent but only as far as story will allow. His backstory, the former assignment he alludes to in Chinatown is good if a little contrived. I’d have liked to know more about his background, then I would have cared about the character more. And maybe it’s just the film noir device that foreshadows his curse. That what happened in Chinatown before is likely going to happen again. There’s a concerted effort to physically distinguish Jake Gittes. A quarter into the movie he gets his nose sliced by Polanski himself no less, and spends most of the rest of the film wearing a distinctive cast over it. But despite this unique physical trait, in his own right, Jake isn’t very memorable. He’s got personality but not enough to carry the film, which I think may be a reason why The Two Jakes, this movie’s 1990 sequel directed by Nicholson himself, was a failure. Faye Dunaway, whose career seemed almost confined to the ‘70’s does a decent job as Evelyn, this movie’s answer to the film noir femme fatale trope. You know she’s a subterfuge but she keeps your attention and indeed it’s her storyline that ends up being more impactful. John Huston’s performance is good, and a pure nod to the noir genre of the 1940s which many would argue was spearheaded by his debut The Maltese Falcon (I’d also argue there are noir elements to his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre too). Perry Lopez and John Hillerman are good. And it’s kind of cool to see Paulie from Rocky, as well as James Hong in this movie. Despite everything else this is a good bunch of performers.
It’s honestly not until the ending that this movie really does some new things and makes for moderately memorable cinema. Evelyn’s personal reveals in the last act are unexpected and adds a darker layer to the villains. And from that point on the despicable actions on the part of antagonist earn your investment in his downfall more than any other of the basic greedy motivations. And the ending itself is really quite good. Without going into spoilers, as the final line suggests, it does take place in Chinatown and a lot happens. It’s genuinely executed smartly: everything moves appropriately quickly until its brought to an immediate standstill. The ending isn’t much of an ending. Jake solves the mystery but there’s no real resolution. It’s just that an unfortunate and admittedly foreseeable tragedy takes place, Jake is disturbed by it, and there are no consequences we’re privy to to the overarching storyline of the film. It’s very striking, is leaves the audience uneasy, and again is reminiscent of the tone of old film noirs right down to the way its shot and scored.
Chinatown is not as unique as I was hoping it would be. As a tribute to the style, atmosphere, and tone of classic film noirs, it works alright but doesn’t do a lot throughout its’ plot to distinguish itself much. The story isn’t very interesting, the characters are underdeveloped, Jake’s a little clichéd, and it makes for a movie that looks good but can’t engage you with the stakes. There’s nothing wrong with the performances though, apart from maybe Jack Nicholson not being insane enough to be enjoyable, and the movie does craft its world with detail and depth. The slow jazz music which gives the film its mood may be my favourite characteristic, and the finale really works, possibly the reason that last line has received the fame it has. But Chinatown is a movie that on its own doesn’t live up to the legacy of those last words or its well-known scenes (mostly from the last act). It’s well-made and looks good but as with any incomplete mystery, that’s not enough.