Chinatown (1974)


Director:  Roman Polanski
Cast:  Jack NicholsonFaye Dunaway, John Huston
Plot:  A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on to a scheme of murder that has something to do with water.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Thriller

Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Original Screenplay.  Nom. for 10 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Runtime:  131min
Rating:  NC16 for strong violence, coarse language, and some sexuality.


Roman Polanski.  The name conjures up memories of his recent masterpiece, The Pianist, which gave him his much deserved Best Director Oscar.  The name also reminds of the controversy that surrounded him three decades ago in which he was charged with statutory rape and then cowardly fled to his native Poland to escape charges. 

The mystery and allure of Polanski can be felt in his films, especially his earlier pictures including Chinatown, which is considered by most to be his best film ever.  Nominated for eleven Oscars including Best Picture and Director, it bagged one for Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne in a year dominated by Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II.  

Chinatown is a vintage 1970s picture.  The use of abstract color, slightly surreal picture quality, and the establishment of bleak and grim moods make this a contemporary film-noir of the highest standard.  In fact, another successful modern film-noir - Curtis Hanson's crime thriller, L.A Confidential, very much drew inspiration from Chinatown.

Towne's screenplay is one of the best achievements of the 1970s.  Full of mystery and unexpected revelations, the story weaves its way to a climatic finale that is both shocking and tragically beautiful at the same time.  

Set in America before WWII, it explores the social issues of that era.  Be it water, irrigation issues or the problem of greed and the abuse of authority, Towne intelligently examines the consequences of such issues against the backdrop of a simple yet complex 'Sherlock Holmesresque' case.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are extraordinary in their roles.  They have great on-screen chemistry as well as excellent acting capabilities.  This is even more remarkable as Towne's script is a tough nut to crack, requiring the mastery of emotion and role awareness. 

Chinatown is the film that alerted the world to Nicholson's talent, joining the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino as one of the greatest living actors to come out of the that decade.

The pacing of Chinatown is deliberately slow, thus viewers can find time to appreciate the artistic values that the film offers in abundance.  Polanski does not show a scene in its directness; in fact he tends to imply certain things (e.g. the presence of someone, the consequence of an action) in abstract ways. 

Despite the leisured pacing, Chinatown manages to engage viewers with its presentation and filming techniques.  Often, the Oscar-nominated music by Jerry Goldsmith echoes the heartless and cheerless world that the characters live in, very much the same way Bernard Hermann's score for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver would accomplish two years later. 

In addition, Polanski's skillful use of suspense works to perfection here, almost to unbearable levels in some sequences.  It's no wonder he’s often called the closest successor to Hitchcock. 

Chinatown is an evergreen picture of such immense quality that most critics rightly believe it to be one of the best films ever made.  Subsequent viewings not only enhance our appreciation, but help us realize that Towne's screenplay is so much deeper and hold significant relevance to the whole construct of the plot than most of us would care to analyze.  Highly recommended, Chinatown is a tour-de-force. 


Click here to go back to Central Station.




daniel said…
I have to correct you that Chinatown and LA Confidential are NOT film-noir. As much as these 2 films drew inspiration from film noir, they cannot be considered as noir themselves. This is because noir is a period in cinema history, just like the renaissance to art, which began in 1940 and effectively ended in 1958, as many would postulate. Similar to the French New Wave from the late 1940s to mid 1960s, this period of time is now long gone.
Eternality said…
I beg to differ. CHINATOWN and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL are modern film noirs or neo-noirs. Yes, they are made outside of the classic noir period of the 1940s and 1950s, but they are still considered to be noirs.

To my knowledge, there are at least three schools of thought for the definition of film noir with the debate still ongoing: (1) Film noir is a period in time when classic noirish films were made like THE MALTESE FALCON,(2)film noir could be seen as a reflecting a cinematic mood or style e.g. the use of shadows, stock characters like the hard-boiled detective or femme fatale etc., or (3) film noir could be a genre or sub-genre with variations such as tech-noir like THE TERMINATOR and BLADE RUNNER or psycho-noirs like BLUE VELVET.

One of the best examples of the film noir is the Coens' THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, which was shot in 2001. So I don't think film noir should be limited to films that are from the classical period. If they are, they should be called classical film noirs. In my opinion, film noirs did not die off but were manifested in different forms as cinema changed over the decades. I prefer to think of film noir as a combination of the 2nd and 3rd school of thought, based on the qualities of the 1st school of thought.

Of course, a true film noir purist would follow the first school of thought. But I think the idea of film noir is much more than that, not from a historical perspective, but at least from a cinematic perspective.

What do you think?
daniel said…
The problem with the 2nd and 3rd definitions of film noir is that so many films exhibit such noir-like characteristics and hence going by that definition so many films can be lumped under noir. Se7en is noir, The Usual Suspects, Zodiac , Sin City, Cape Fear are all hence noir? Mind you, i havent gone to the extent of labeling The Terminator as noir yet. I prefer to think them as mystery/suspense films instead.
So the reason why i believe in the (1) school of thought is because of the ill-defined genre of 'neo-noir' because of the slippery slope of falling into the genre.

Take Italian neo-realism for example. If i decide to shoot a film with non-actors taken from the street in Italy, or perhaps a b&w silent German Expressionistic film, I am fairly sure it won't be classifed as those genres. Inspired/Influenced by them but not a product of those cinematic periods.
I think that is the reason why there are so many sub-genres within sub-genres; the dilemma of film classification.
Eternality said…
It is this struggle to define film noir that continues to intrigue me. That is one reason I love these kinds of films, though it has to be said that the early noirs are still the most representative of the idea of film noirs.

Comparing with Italian Neo-realism or German Expressionism or even the French New Wave may not be suitable because these were cinematic movements created as a response to socio-political situations of the time, or as an alternative to classical Hollywood cinema. The key point is that filmmakers proactively initiated these movements, with scholars and critics endorsing these movements as important periods in the history of cinema.

As for film noir, it was not an initiated movement of any kind. In fact, the idea of film noir was not widely recognized until at least the late 1960s. Even the filmmakers themselves such as John Huston did not know they were making "noir" films in the 1940s.

It was only in retrospect that film noir was seen to have originated from that specific period of time in the early 1940s in classical Hollywood cinema. Unlike film movements, it never really stagnated or stopped completely, but manifested itself in other forms because essentially film noir is more about the capture of a particular cinematic style and mood than being confined into a "movement-like" period of time when only such films exist.

The fact that there have been successful crossovers of different genres with film noir gave rise to sub-genres like tech-noir (sci-fi thriller with noir elements).

Going back to CHINATOWN, which is the film in this debate of ours, I most certainly don't see it as a film noir in the classical interpretation, but it is an important example of the modern film noir or neo-noir. As Polanski has said before, it doesn't mean that a film is in color (read: shot in a contemporary context), it should be immediately excluded from the notion of film noir because it was never a movement in the first place.
daniel said…
Fair enough. Anyway, the term 'noir' was given by the French auteurs in the 1950s to describe the american thrillers/mystery films of the 40s.
Eternality said…
Yup, "black cinema" as they say because of the pessimistic, fatalistic mood it conveyed with cinematic styles and techniques that interestingly were influenced from the films of German Expressionism.
daniel said…
So... how many classical film noirs have you seen?
Eternality said…
Not too sure, definitely not even a quarter of what's out there. Probably about 10-12. Yourself?
daniel said…
About the same as you. What are those titles? maybe we can share together. I don't see many reviews of such films here. Is it you don't review them?
Eternality said…
Some I watched in class, thus did not have time to review them. I only review films that I have seen in a theater or on home video.

If you are talking about the classical films, I can recall at the top of my head several of them:


Popular Posts