“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
“Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
“You’re a nosy fella, kitty cat, huh? You know what happens to nosy fellas? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.”
The 1974 film as nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning just for screenplay. The film isn’t quite a noir film, but it does takes place in post WWII Los Angeles and it’s a murder mystery. Chinatown is held up as one of the smartest written and well-crafted films of the decade. Everyone connected with the film received a career bump from both the commercial and critical success.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in marital discord. He gets drawn into a surveillance case involving a public figure that involves him in a murder mystery that dredges up personal history he would rather keep buried. You’ll have to see the film, I’m not saying anymore.
Okay, just a little more. I first saw the film when it premiered, and have seen it many times since. A few years later I saw it again in a theater, where it deserves to be seen. It’s a stylish and beautiful film. Walking the few blocks home afterward, as daylight was fading away, the sound of the film’s theme continued to drift around in my head. There was something exciting, but unsettling about the film that seemed to radiate from my pores. Classic films will do that; you leave the theater with your heart beating faster and you feel the dramatic exuberance.
Robert Towne’s original screenplay was based on William Mulholland, head of the water and power department who brought water to the city as it entered a mega-growth phase. The key was bringing water from over 200 miles away, through the Owens Valley. Plans for the project were shady and insiders bought up massive areas of land that would benefit from the water. He was also responsible for the building storage dams, one of which was the St. Francis Dam, which suddenly collapsed, taking 500 lives in the ensuing flood. Towne fictionalized many of these facts in his screenplay of greed, water and political power.
Jack Nicholson was in the early “successful” part of his job, as he called it. His most recent films were: Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. He has Oscar nominations for three of those films. Jack was on his way, and he’d be nominated again for Chinatown, and win a Golden Globe for the role.
Faye Dunaway was also on winning streak that started with Bonnie and Clyde (1968). Her key films were The Thomas Crown Affair, Little Big Man, The Arrangement, Oklahoma Crude and The Three Musketeers. Chinatown was her first big, serious film since The Thomas Crown Affair, and she delivered a Oscar-nominated performance as sexually damaged woman pushed to the end of her rope.
John Huston starred as the father of Dunaway’s character and the former business partner of Dunaway’s murdered husband. Huston, who dabbled in strange acting roles when we wasn’t directing feature films, is a very twisted, politically-connected villain.
Roman Polanski, returned from exile, to direct this very stylish mystery. After his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family, Polanski went to Europe. He not only directed but turned in a scary supporting role as the person slicing the nose of Nicholson’s character. Polanski would again flee America when he was charged with statutory rape later in the decade. Polanski would have other film success but Chinatown, for me, ranks as his best film.
True to the nature of many 1970’s films, there is a downbeat ending, one that disappoints those wanting the good people to win and the bad to be punished. The ending is also somewhat cryptic – what exactly is Chinatown the metaphor supposed to mean? It is the land of disappointment for Gittes, the Jack Nicholson character.
The American Film Institute ranked Chinatown with the No. 9 greatest film score of all time. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the haunting scored after replacing another composer on the film. Goldsmith’s score is sometimes spare with low piano notes and other instruments as sound effects to punctuate key dramatic scenes. The key motif in the intro and end music, and reoccurring throughout the film, is a melancholy trumpet that conveys the loneliness and jazz textures of sun-soaked Los Angeles. Below is an excerpt from the score. Chinatown is a film that is hard to forget.