AFI #21: Chinatown


It has been quite a few years since I’ve screened Chinatown so I was looking forward to watching it again — I was not disappointed. I love this film for a couple of reasons. First, it was made in 1974 but it takes place in the 1940s and it’s a wonderful homage to the classic noir. Credit to director Roman Polanski for that, and say what you want about the guy’s personal life he’s a hell of a director. For me though Chinatown is his best and will be his film legacy (unfortunately his personal legacy will always be about his rape conviction and his wife’s murder by the Manson gang). With Chinatown Polanski delivers us to 1940s Los Angeles and a film that could just as easily have starred Humphrey Bogart as Jake Gittes and Lauren Bacall as Evelyn Mulwray. The film works as noir on every level from the cinematography to the dialogue to the plot.

But the real star of the film is Jack Nicholson who delivers a perfect private eye with just enough toughness combined with smarts and sarcasm. And really, nobody does sarcasm like Jack. Early Nicholson is the best Nicholson for my money, whether it’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider or The Shining. His performance in Chinatown is classic Jack. Coupled with Faye Dunaway you have a memorable film couple that does indeed hold up against Bogie and Bacall and Hepburn and Tracy. How gorgeous was Faye Dunaway in the 70s? It’s no coincidence by the way that both Dunaway and Nicholson are all over the AFI list, Nicholson for this and the aforementioned Cuckoo’s Nest and Easy Rider, Dunaway for Network and Bonnie and Clyde.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that I love Chinatown — I’m a sucker for noir, whether it’s classic like The Maltese Falcon or neo like LA Confidential. Who doesn’t love a good private detective film? Sam Spade. Philip Marlowe. Jim Rockford!

Finally, Chinatown also brings us one of the most demented plots in noir history. It’s not enough for there to be murder, corruption and sex — Polanski and writer Robert Towne throw in incest for good measure. How creepy is John Huston’s character Noah Cross. I love it when Jack asks him why he needs to buy up all the real estate in the Valley, after all he he’s already worth $20 million or so. Cross says “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.” It’s not enough for him to be rich, he has to leave a legacy that includes being the most powerful man in L.A.

So what does it take to be a private eye? Just ask J.J. Gittes: “Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”

Next up: We crack the Top 20 with It’s a Wonderful Life

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