Monday, November 15, 2010


Considered to be one of the greatest noir films ever made, Chinatown tells the story of a detective investigating a murder that involves a dispute over water in California circa 1937.  Directed by Roman Polanski with an original screenplay by Robert Towne.  Chinatown is considered to be one of the finest mysteries ever told as it also became the first film produced by former Paramount studio head Robert Evans.  Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, and John Huston.  Chinatown is an extraordinary masterpiece that is still captivating more than 35 years since its release.

After being hired by a woman named Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to investigate her husband, whom she accuses him of adultery.  Private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes goes after Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), a chief supervisor working the L.A. County Water and Power Department.  Following him through public meetings and everything else that involved water.  Gittes learns that Mr. Mulwray is having an affair with a young woman (Belinda Palmer) as he takes pictures with help from his associates Duffy (Bruce Glover) and Walsh (Joe Mantell).  The pictures become public where Jake is suddenly being sued by a woman (Faye Dunaway) who is revealed to be Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray.

Realizing he’s been duped all along, Gittes wants to know why when he wants to talk to Hollis Mulwray himself.  After getting some information at Mulwray’s office and meeting with another supervisor named Russ Yelburton (John Hillerman).  Gittes notices pictures of Hollis with an old man (John Huston) whom he previously saw in one of Walsh’s pictures revealed to be Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father.  Gittes goes to a reservoir to meet with Mulwray where he also comes across his former police partner Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) where Hollis Mulwray is found dead.  Evelyn is asked to go to the police station for questions as she turns to Jake for help as she wants him to investigate what happened.

With Gittes now on the case to find out what happened to Hollis Mulwray, he also learns about why Mulwray was murdered relating to the owner ship of the water.  Gittes ends up getting into a confrontation with a corrupt sheriff named Mulvihill (Roy Jenson) and his associate (Roman Polanski) who cuts Jake’s nose.  After that incident, Gittes gets a call from the woman who pretended to be Mrs. Mulwray about the obituaries which mentioned some names.  Gittes meets with Noah Cross about Hollis Mulwray where Cross asks Gittes to find Hollis’ mistress.  After finding out about some recent landowners that included one of the deceased names at the obituary.  Gittes goes to an orange grove plantation where he gets in trouble with landowners until Evelyn saves him.

Jake and Evelyn learn more about the motivation for Hollis’ murder in relation to his protest towards a dam being built to prevent water from landowners in the valley.  After evading Mulvihill and his henchmen, Jake and Evelyn hide at her home where Evelyn reveals more about her father.  Evelyn, later gets a call from her butler Kahn (James Wong) to go to a house.  Jake would follow Evelyn as he learns about Evelyn’s dilemma.  After getting another call about some more information about Hollis’ body, Jake confronts Evelyn about Hollis and the mistress where some awful truths come out.  Even as Escobar is going after Jake over withholding evidence as it relates to Noah Cross where it would lead to a climatic confrontation.

What was supposed to be part of a trilogy of stories involving Jake Gittes, the film is an allegory of sorts of the dark, cynical tone of what was happening in the 1970s during the Watergate scandal.  Both screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski decided to create a story about corruption set in the late 1930s in the age when film noir was big.  The end result is an intoxicating yet eerie mystery-thriller that has the attitude of the 1970s and take it back in time to the late 1930s.  A film that has all of the ingredients of a stylish noir film that is entertaining and engrossing.

Part of this genius belongs to screenwriter Robert Towne whose witty, rhythmic dialogue is part of the film’s brilliance.  Setting the film during the real-life California Water Wars during the early 1900s.  Towne was able to use that incident as a backdrop while focusing on why was this chief supervisor for the water department was killed and who killed him.  That’s where Jake Gittes comes in as he goes very deep into finding out what is going on.  Though he was originally supposed to do a job to uncover a man committing adultery, he gets more than he bargains for while nearly losing a nose.

Gittes is the typical gumshoe P.I. in a lot of noir films yet has an attitude that sets him apart from those protagonists from the past.  Even as he is a man who is trying to be good while dealing with demons he had in the past in his days as a beat cop at Chinatown.  Then there’s Evelyn Mulwray, the femme fatale of sorts but one with a much bigger secret.  Though she reveals the secret in a famous dialogue, what is revealed is a woman still haunted by what happened to her and how she tries to keep her husband happy despite not being faithful to her husband and vice versa.  Still, in the classic noir formula, Evelyn does become a formidable ally to Gittes whenever he gets himself into trouble and such.

Towne’s approach to the structure of the story is unique not just to the genre but also to its period.  The first act revolves around Gittes’ discovery of Hollis Mulwray’s murder, Evelyn hiring him, and his confrontation with Mulvihill.  The second act has Gittes meeting his first meeting with Noah Cross and his meeting with landowners.  The third act begins with Gittes confronting Evelyn about the mysterious woman at her home which leads to some troubling revelations as well as other dark secrets.  Even to the climatic confrontation at Chinatown.  Towne’s script is truly mesmerizing as it is definitely one of the best examples of a great screenplay.

The direction of Roman Polanski is truly intoxicating with its hypnotic presentation in terms of framing and capturing a moment on film.  Polanski’s camera always follow the action as if he is playing an invisible observer to see what Jake Gittes is doing.  At the same time, he also gives the viewer a chance to soak Los Angeles circa 1937.  Still, Polanski is interested in divulging into the mysterious death of Hollis Mulwray as well as all of the issues that occurred in the Water Wars.  Shooting scenes of rivers, oceans, and ponds become symbolic for the motivation of Gittes’ investigation.  Even in the tiny pond at the Mulwray’s home inside their garden where Gittes would find a major clue.

Polanski’s eerie direction, in terms of capturing action and scenery, is a highlight along with the way he captures the actors in their performances.  Whether it’s using a close-up or a two-shot with various actors.  He always has his eye on Nicholson, who appears in nearly every frame of the film.  Even as he gets the chance for the actors to feel relaxed or give in to some kind of crazed performance.  The overall result of Polanski’s work is magnificent as this is definitely one of his crowning achievements in his prolific career.

Cinematographer John A. Alonzo does an amazing job with the film‘s lush photography to encompass its noir tone.  Alonzo’s photography also has great shadings for many of the film’s sunny day interiors along with wonderful nighttime scenes that play up the dark mood of the film.  Editor Sam O’Steen does fantastic work with the film‘s editing that includes a leisured pace to the film.  Even with fast-paced rhythmic cutting to play up to the snappy dialogue and intense scenes as O’Steen’s editing is truly one of the film’s technical highlights.

Production designer Richard Sylbert, along with set decorator Ruby Levitt and art director W. Stewart Campbell, do a spectacular job in re-creating late 1930s Los Angeles with the use of old cars and places.  Costume designer Anthea Sylbert does a glorious job with the costumes from the suits and hats the men wear to the dresses, hats, and shoes that the women wear.  There’s something to the look and feel in the costumes that is mesmerizing as it adds authenticity to the film. 

Sound editors Howard Beals, Bob Cornett, and Roger Sword do excellent work with the sound to capture gunshots and the atmosphere surrounding the locations.  Music composer Jerry Goldsmith create what is truly one of the best film scores ever composed for a film.  Goldsmith’s lush, scintillating score filled with swooning trumpets and an elegant orchestra to play up the drama of the film along with broad arrangements for many of the film’s suspense sequences.  Featuring a soundtrack filled with jazz music from other composers, it’s one of the best film scores/soundtracks ever made.

The casting by Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton is marvelous with the array of memorable small and big roles that are portrayed on film.  Among the number of memorable small roles include Ron Howard’s father Rance as an angry farmer at a meeting, Cecil Elliot as an old woman Gittes sweet-talks to, Fritzi Burr as Hollis Mulwray’s secretary, Belinda Palmer as Hollis’ mistress, Nandu Hinds as Gittes’ secretary, Richard Bakalyan as Escobar’s associate Loach, and Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray.  Other notable small yet memorable roles include Burt Young as a client of Gittes named Curly, Bruce Glover and Joe Mantell as Gittes’ respective associates of Duffy and Walsh, James Hong as Evelyn’s butler, John Hillerman as the evasive Yelburton, Diane Ladd as the fake Mrs. Mulwray, Roy Jenson as the sleazy Mulvihill, and Roman Polanski in the memorable role as a knife-wielding thug.

Perry Lopez is excellent as Lt. Escobar, a by-the-books detective who becomes suspicious about Gittes’ involvement with Evelyn Mulwray as there’s an ambiguity over what side he’s on.  John Huston is brilliant as Noah Cross, a shady businessman who is hell-bent on having power as he tries to manipulate Gittes.  Though it’s a small role, Huston truly stands out with his gravelly voice and intimidating presence as it’s definitely a classic role from the famed Hollywood icon.  Faye Dunaway is superb as Evelyn Mulwray.  Dunaway’s cool yet eerie performance is definitely her most iconic performance of her career.  Dunaway exudes the idea of a femme fatale while her motivations to help Gittes in the investigation adds to her veiled persona.  It’s really an amazing performance from Dunaway.

Finally, there’s Jack Nicholson in one of his finest performance as Jake Gittes.  Nicholson gives a humorous yet cunning performance as a detective trying to find out what is going on.  There’s no quit in a guy like Gittes as he goes head on to find the truth.  Nicholson is pretty restrained throughout the film though his monologue about his nose shows a man being intense without going overboard.  Nicholson gets a chance for others, including Dunaway and Huston, to shine in the scenes he’s in as he just takes a back seat of sorts.  Even with Dunaway where the two have chemistry that is fiery at times but also intoxicating.  It’s definitely an example of Nicholson’s brilliance as an actor.

Released in June of 1974, the film was a massive hit with audiences and critics.  Nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, the film won Robert Towne an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  At the Golden Globes months earlier, the film won four for Best Picture, Best Director for Roman Polanski, Best Screenplay for Towne, and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson.  The film’s legacy lived on as in 1991, it was selected to be part of the National Film Registry.  At the same time, the film has consistently been put on many top films list as one of the best.  Though a 1990 sequel directed and starring Nicholson called The Two Jakes with a screenplay by Robert Town was a critical and commercial failure.  It did nothing to taint the brilliance of Chinatown.

Chinatown is truly one of the greatest films ever made.  Thanks to Roman Polanski’s enchanting direction, Robert Towne’s marvelous screenplay, and the tour-de-force performances of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.  It’s a film that continues to be as timeless since its original 1974 release as it will always capture the hearts and mind of new viewers.  For film buffs wanting to discover the work of Roman Polanski will no doubt see this film as one of his quintessential as well as those interested in the work of Jack Nicholson.  In the end, Chinatown is a classic noir film that is entertaining and engaging from the wondrous mind of Roman Polanski.

Roman Polanski Reviews: Knife in the Water - Repulsion - Cul-de-Sac - The Fearless Vampire Killers - Rosemary’s Baby - Macbeth (1971 film) - (What?) - The Tenant - Tess - (Pirates) - Frantic - Bitter Moon - Death and the Maiden - The Ninth Gate - The Pianist - Oliver Twist (2005 film) - The Ghost Writer - Carnage (Venus in Fur) - (Based on a True Story) - (An Officer and a Spy) - (The Palace)

© thevoid99 2010

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