Chinatown (1974)


(director: Roman Polanski; screenwriter: Robert Towne; cinematographer: John A. Alonzo; editor: Sam O’Steen; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Jack Nicholson (J.J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt. Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roman Polanski (Man With Knife), Richard Bakalyan (Det. Loach), Joe Mantell (Walsh), Roy Jenson (Claude), Nandu Hinds (Sophie), Belinda Palmer (Katherine), James Hong (Kahn) , Bruce Glover (Duffy); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Robert Evans; Paramount; 1974)

“One of Polanski’s stronger directing efforts.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roman Polanski’s (“Rosemary’s Baby”) Chinatown is one of the best films of the 1970s. Robert Towne’s cleverly labyrinthine plotted classic detective story is set during the LA drought of 1937 but fervently captures the feel of the 1940s film noir. LA is pictured as a place where people hide in the shadows of the lush landscapes and power brokers make their own rules in running the city. It builds its cloying story around a complex murder investigation by a private detective, who has stuck his head into business he shouldn’t have. Polanski’s film explores human nature, murder, a real-estate scandal, political and civic corruption, a dysfunctional family, and incest. The rough-and-tumble successful private detective doing the investigation is a seemingly more modern version of the way headstrong Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gumshoe went about his business (this detective has no problem working sleazy marital dispute cases and making a good living, he takes cases the loner Marlowe would frown upon). It is one of Polanski’s stronger directing efforts.

Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired for an adultery investigation by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), whose hubby Hollis (Darrell Zwerling) is head of the water department. Jake takes photos of Hollis with a young girl on Echo Lake. The story makes front-page news, but Jake soon learns he was used as a patsy to discredit Hollis who has made powerful enemies because he opposes a water reservoir to serve LA. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the daughter of Noah Cross (John Huston) who once was a business partner of Hollis’s, never hired the detective and threatens a law suit. Hollis soon is found dead, as the mortician jokes “Only in LA, can the Water Commissioner drown in the middle of a drought.”

Mrs. Mulwray hires Jake to find the killer of her hubby, believing it is likely her sinister father did it. Noah and Hollis had a falling out ever since they dissolved the water power company they owned on the urging of Hollis that the water rights should be controlled by the public and their enmity continued when Noah persuaded Hollis to build a dam that broke. Hollis vowed never to build another dam because there were better ways to irrigate the farmland in the San Fernando Valley.

The detective uncovers a crooked real-estate deal that is engineered by tycoon Noah, who has hired Jake to find the missing girl Hollis was with. Noah has recently been purchasing lots of farmland in the Valley, using the names of unsuspecting residents of a nursing home. The tycoon has been buying the land secretly on the cheap, knowing full-well that the reservoir will soon be built. Because of his snooping, Jake runs into physical danger. In one such instance, Roman Polanski plays a knife-wielding thug who slits Jake’s nose for snooping around the reservoir, which requires Jake to walk around with a bandaged nose for a great part of the film. Jake also uncovers some heavy family secrets about the young girl Katherine (the one Hollis was supposedly seeing), and her relationship to Evelyn and Noah. It leads to a showdown in Chinatown among the corrupt police, Jake, Noah, Evelyn, and Katherine. It closes in tragedy and without justice being served. Lt. Lou Escobar, Jake’s old pal when he was on the force, gives Jake a break by letting him go free and Jake’s associate Walsh says “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The melancholy tone of the film, based on a true incident in LA history, cuts deeply into the skin of political corruption, as Polansky not only wielded a knife as an actor but even more so as a director.

Chinatown was nominated for eleven Oscars.