Continuing on from the sixties new wave of auteur filmmaking with a strong European influence, Chinatown presented audiences with a hardboiled, dark and challenging noir narrative that became a major critical and commercial success.
Before summer blockbusters like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) radically redefined marketing and box-office performance, producer Robert Evans took risks in enabling the production and commercial success of game changing masterpieces during his tenure as head of Paramount Pictures – many of which are now considered to be classics. Chinatown was his first venture into independent producing and went on to earn 11 Academy Award nominations.
Directed by Roman Polanski from an Oscar winning screenplay by Robert Towne, Chinatown is a neo-noir mystery set in 1937 Los Angeles following Private Investigator J.J “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) as he takes on what appears to be a case of infidelity that gradually unravels into something more dangerous and twisted. Towne’s screenplay draws heavily from the California Water Wars disputes from the early 20th century, as well as echoing the scenery, narrative deception and enigma of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels. Though the typically convoluted noir narrative may require close attention, the emotional pay-off and tragedy provides a fundamentally rewarding experience.
Chinatown unfolds in tandem with Gittes’ understanding of events and is seen subjectively through his perspective, as he is in every scene – again, another Chandler effect. Nicholson makes the role his own by transcending the typically cold and unaffected connotations of a noir detective through an unspoken, yet palpable emotional nuance with undertones of sadness and care that extend beyond his job’s worth. Though he has the capacity to be cynical, vulgar and dismissive, he doesn’t relish in the nastier elements of his job, unlike the anti-heroes we expect from the genre. Faye Dunaway plays femme fatale Evelyn Cross Mulwray, whose initially cold and mysterious presence gives way to heart-breaking selflessness and a desire to nurture and protect that is influenced by her own trauma. Hollywood legend (and director of The Maltese Falcon – a classic noir influence) John Huston applies the perfect mix of disarming charm and slimy villainy to his role as Mulwray’s wealthy father Noah Cross who attempts stonewall and misdirect Gittes’ investigation.
The production and costume design of the film cater to the mismatch of a civilisation built upon a near uninhabitable desert, with bustling offices contrasting against bright, dry landscapes and trilby-sporting snazzy dressers at odds with farmers and settlers. Jerry Goldsmith’s sombre, atmospheric score brims with trumpets that sound less sleazy and more mournful as the plot thickens. The sound design plays with diegesis as dialogue, dripping water and gunshots often cue before the source is revealed. This nicely ups the tension as well as reinforcing Gittes’ perspective as neither he nor the audience are privy to events before they occur.
Chinatown has been cemented as both a masterpiece of the New Hollywood era and a classic in league with the greatest films in the noir genre.