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Every decade or so, there seems to be a film that evokes an era of film making long gone. Recently, we had The Artist, a film that takes us back to the late 1920s. For the 1970s, the film that took audiences back was Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which is one long tribute to the gritty film-noir of the 1940s. With a tight, Oscar-winning script by Robert Towne and frightfully good performances from Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and a stellar supporting cast, Chinatown has become an icon of the director-driven '70s.
Chinatown tells the story of murder and deceit in the 1930s Los Angeles, through the eyes of Private Detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson). He's a detective stuck solving cases of infidelity and when a woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray hires him, he simply rolls his eyes and takes the case. When his photos land on the front page of a newspaper, he soon finds out that the woman wasn't Ms. Mulwray. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway) is a stunning, mysterious and very smart woman who begs Jake to stay away. Of course, Jake, who believes he is smarter than everyone else involved, can't and decides that he must find out who really set him up.
Mrs. Mulwray's husband is the head of the Water and Power Department of Los Angeles and when he is murdered, Jake gets himself wrapped up in the case. Mr. Mulwray discovered a scam, where water would be diverted to the San Fernando Valley so that the businessmen who bought up all the land from farmers could profit from future development. The man at the head of the organization running the scheme is Noah Cross (John Huston), Mrs. Mulwray's father and her husband's former business partner. Jake follows the trail, under some delusion that he is smarter than everyone, but his conceit clouds his judgment and it never really seems like he understands that this case is more complex than his usual infidelity cases.
While Towne's intricate script is probably among the best ever filmed, Polanski's direction is really the key to this film. His use of the anamorphic, wide frame and hand-held shots update the noir style without losing classic elements, starting right off the bat with the credits. Chinatown also features amazingly restrained violence. Who needs a fight longer than a couple of minutes when we need to get to another big reveal? The actors who populate this film also feel like they come from another time. Dunaway is a stunning bombshell, as if she just walked out of Laura. Nicholson, who is in every scene, is reminiscent of Glenn Ford in The Big Heat. Huston is in the film more for his presence, but The Maltese Falcon director embodies his role as no one else can.
In one of the many documentaries included on the newly-released Blu-ray, Paramount producer Robert Evans says that the film needed a European director, since an American director might glamorize Los Angeles. That's true. Polanski makes Chinatown a tribute to film, not a tribute to the city's pre-WWII look. We don't see the LA of movie stars, but the LA of the corrupt and the dirty. This LA does not gleam in the sunlight – it turns ugly. I think this is what really sets it apart from other films that set out to pay tribute to another time. Even The Artist is guilty of glamorizing its setting. Granted, Chinatown is about another aspect of LA, but, as other films have shown, you can glamorize the bad parts of society. Chinatown doesn't fall into that trap because, in Polanski's mind, the only thing that should be glamorous about Chinatown is Dunaway.
Chinatown deserves to be next on the list of perfect films, alongside works like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Raging Bull. What Polanksi, Towne, Evans and Nicholson crafted is an elegant, moving piece that is a rare mix of film-as-art and film-as-entertainment.