In 1974 Roman Polanski released Chinatown on cinemas in the U.S to immediate critical acclaim. A dark neo-noir tale of private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) which begins as a mundane investigation into the alleged adultery of a water-mogul and ends with a famously crushing blow has matured into a vintage classic, comparable to nearly anything in cinema. 

As Gittes, Jack Nicholson develops his character from a investigator more akin to cleaning out the public’s dirty laundry to a magnanimous, maverick detective, trying to simultaneously get to the bottom of a public scandal threatening Los Angeles’ water supply and a private tragedy threatening the integrity and very existence of Faye Dunaway’s rich socialite Evelyn Cross Mulwray. 

With a dynamic, witty and heartfelt script, both leads excel. Coming prior to his performances in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining this was at the time Nicholson’s best performance. In his hands Gittes is supremely confident, exuding one-liners at the drop of a hat and moving from success to success. However, when it is needed Nicholson shows the talent which would later come to the attention of so many people, imbuing Gittes with a vulnerability we are soon all too aware of being just below the surface. ‘Let me explain something to you Walsh’, Gittes tells one of his much put upon associates, ‘this business requires a certain amount of finesse’ and woe be it upon anyone who argues that Gittes and indeed Nicholson doesn’t show at least that. 

Just beginning the height of her career, Dunaway here perfects the stereotype of the neurotic, confused heroine, at times providing Gittes with a worthy adversary, at times showing devastating failings which hint at an inability to cope with her new place in a developing society. Victimised and alienated by her father (an imposing John Huston) Evelyn is eventually a tragic portrayal of the outcomes of un-checked wealth and richness. Although she certainly does not take most of the blame for the events of Chinatown her inability to react rationally to irrational events is one of the film’s driving factors, imbuing an inevitability to her character’s eventual descent into desperation and despair. 

Lurking at the back of this review, as Chinatown itself does in the film, is a discussion of the film’s conclusion, a sore point to some, a majestic success to others. Whether you judge it as either of the above will perhaps largely depend of your judgement of the characters and the interpretation you place on the presence of Chinatown, the location within
Chinatown, the film. Whichever way you judge it, it is a brave choice by Polanski to wear his heart on his sleeve at a time when his private life was in turmoil. For those who find it ill-judged or distasteful it is worth asking the question; what else would you expect from Chinatown? 

The iconic image from Chinatown is Gittes with a plaster over his injured nose, an injury inflicted by a thug played by a cameoing Roman Polanski. To his critics this could provide a metaphor for the whole film; a decent noir left with an ugly scar by a tormented director. However, in truth it is hard to fault Polanski, merging here influences from famous noir such as the Viennetian degradation and mystery on display in The Third Man to the earlier darkness within the heart he had explored in Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth. The result is a film that will dissatisfy many, leaving a sour taste in more than a mouth or two. Despite this, maybe even because of this, it is impossible to ignore Chinatown in more ways than one and the same people who find it unconvincing will never-the-less find it lurking at the back of dinner conversations like the imposing, impending, presence it reveals itself to be.