[In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.]
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Chinatown for a long time. Jack Nicholson in his prime, sexy dames, and a mystery that gets deeper by the minute. My curiosity was piqued, to say the list. I’ve had it queued up to watch for a while, but there always seemed to be another film that would come before it. When Noir Week rolled around, I knew it was time to dive right into the Roman Polanski epic. Did it live up to the hype? Read on to find out! (Spoiler alert: it did.)
Chinatown introduces us to J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator who takes great pride in his job, even though his job is often looked down upon by those around him. When a woman asks him to find proof that her husband, Hollis Mulwray (who just so happens to be chief engineer down at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power), Jake accepts. What follows is a mystery that pulls him into a deep, deep conspiracy that takes him all over Los Angeles, culminating in a shocking end in the titular Chinatown.
I watched Chinatown with my dear friend AJ, as all good movies are even better when shared. We both agreed there wasn’t a wasted character in the bunch (except maybe Roman Polanski’s cameo as the diminutive, knife-wielding associate of Roy Jenson’s Claude Mulvihill), and this is a testament to both the writing and the acting.
Jack Nicholson played the role of Jake with such charm, I was utterly hypnotized throughout the duration of the film. It was like watching a 1930’s Han Solo in action. He smoked like a chimney, passed himself off as other people, and did what needed to be done to get answers. This is made all the more impressive when you realize that he doesn’t fire a single shot during the entire film, or even pick up a gun. Watching Nicholson in his prime was an absolute treat, and I find myself aching to see more of him from that time besides The Shining.
Although nobody can hold a candle to Nicholson, the rest of the cast also does a superb job. Faye Dunaway plays the requisite dame, and really keeps you wondering what’s going on in her head. John Huston’s Noah Cross strikes a careful balance of rich old man and sleaze ball and his unflappability in the last act of the film is truly impressive. Perry Lopez’s Lt. Lou Escobar serves as an exasperated foil to Nicholson’s Jake, a man who chose the left path while Jake took the right. The other characters, while they have less screen time, each shine in their own respects, and Chinatown features one of the best collective casts I’ve seen in a long time.
Robert Towne’s script is absolutely smashing. Mixing humor and drama, intrigue and sexuality, it oozes charm all over. Due to this fact, the two hour and ten minute run time feels like it goes by in a flash. Jake Gittes keeps a cool head at all times, whether he’s telling a woefully offensive dirty joke he heard at the barber shop, sneaking into a crime scene with nothing but another man’s business cards, or starring evil in the face. His sense of humor is what makes him so wickedly excellent to watch. The mystery itself is engrossing, keeping me captivated the entire time, audible ooh’s and ahh’s with each new revelation. The character development in this movie feels natural and the dialogue is sensational. My favorite, and probably the most famous, line, is the last line of the film, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It hung heavy in the air as the credits rolled. Jake left Chinatown for a reason, but Chinatown didn’t leave him.
One of the most surprising things about this film was the bright, sunny atmosphere. When I think of noir, I think dark alleys in the dead of night, not orange groves, wide expanses, and blue skies. However, the few scenes that take place at night are excellent, and my favorite shot of the whole film is when Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray makes her way back to her car, and you only know Jake is in there because you see half of his face in the rear view mirror. It’s a memorable shot, and downright creepy.
The fact that such bright, sunny conditions don’t detract from the noir feel of this movie is a testament to the writing and directing. Noir happens, whether its in a back alley or the back yard of a stately mansion. Add that to gumshoe Jake Gittes and his chain-smoking bad-assery, the quicksand-like mystery that drags him deeper and deeper, and the shady characters whose orbit he gravitates towards, and you have yourself a terrific example of the noir genre.
Chinatown not only met my expectations, it far exceeded them. There is a lot to love: a fantastic protagonist, an engaging, multi-layered mystery, and a very talented cast, and that’s just for starters. If you haven’t seen Chinatown yet, do yourself a favor and toss up to the #1 spot in your queue. You will not be disappointed.