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Any tour through the film noir landscape will likely stop for a visit with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Released in 1974, the film is held up as the quintessential neo-noir, that new batch of films debuting from the 1960’s and onwards which lifted traits from film noir’s Golden Age but branded the genre with elements not seen in the post-war period. Touring through The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946) reveals the habits of those first noirs, filled with tough-guy detectives and Humphrey Bogart’s cold stares and wry smiles. Chinatown uses the mold of these early films then breaks it, adding in elements not fitted for screens twenty years earlier.
Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a private investigator in 1937 Los Angeles. Like Spade and Marlowe, Gittes isn’t picky with the clients he takes but the weight of the job and the secrets he’s uncovered appear to be more a burden for him than they did for Bogart. The film’s complicated story begins with what appears to be a simple mystery. After dismissing one client, a tired Gittes reenters his office to find a stoic woman sitting across the room. She calls on his services because she believes her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes hears the complaint, sighs then sarcastically responds “No…Really?” By this point he must have seen dozens of these cases and is not eager to jump into another. Gittes quickly disregards her worries: “Mrs. Mulwray do you love your husband? Then go home and forget everything. I’m sure that he loves you too. Do you know the expresion ‘let sleeping dogs lie’? You’re…better off not knowing” But soon he finds the adulterer in question is Hollis Mulwray, an influential Los Angeles city planner. Realizing the money to be made, Gittes signs on and is plunged into a mystery involving nearly a dozen instigators.
Chinatown establishes its film noir chops early and often. Stereotyped film noir elements are found throughout; smoking with exceptionaly long cigarette stems, venetian blinds (Gittes mentions Venetian blinds in the first spoken line), characteristic fashion (namely overly-fancy hats), stereotyped camera angles and the use mirrors and reflections including an interesting reflection off a camera lens showing us Gittes and his point of view simultaneously. Jack Nicholson plays a sadder, more defeated version of Sam Spade. Faye Dunaway, gives an incredible performance as his femme fatale, bringing to life the desperate Evelyn Mulwray. John Huston, legendary director of noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo is cast as one of the central characters and gives one of the film’s most memorable performances.
The mystery at the center of Chinatown turns out to be far more complicated than that in The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man and with more sinister dealings at the core. Debuting in 1974 likely factors into the plot. By then audience members would expect a more mysterious mystery and would tolerate more sex and violence along the way. From the very beginning sex is front and center as the opening frames show close-ups of photographs taken of a sex scene. Gittes famously has his nose cut during the film, leaving Jack Nicholson’s bandaged face on most stills. Between those opening frames, a sliced nose, rape and incest, much of the content here wouldn’t have passed censors twenty years earlier. But those additions are likely what gives the film the legs to continue on as a classic decades later.
Classic Film Scale Rating: 8/10
Bottomline: A worthy flag-bearer for the neo-noir genre, Chinatown takes all the best elements of the Golden Age noirs and even improves on the classics.