Classic Musings: Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown'

"Well, to tell you the truth, I lied a little".
-- J.J. Gittes, Chinatown

When a film lover thinks of Roman Polanski's body of work, it usually involves two sharply-divided brackets of cinema: a catalogue of tense psychodrama in the vein of both Repulsion and The Tenant, and, of course, the noir-like mystery in Chinatown. Written with delicate precision by Robert Towne, this densely layered whodunit differs greatly from the rawness of Polanski's more cerebral pictures. Instead, the concentration falls on constructing a historically-minded story that's intelligent and complex -- yet still shockingly coherent. Considering its moody score, splendid period visuals, and iconic performances on top of Towne's unmatched script, Chinatown comes together under the typically unbridled director's eye into a superbly stylish masterwork of post-era noir.

Whether or not you decide to read up on the California Water wars of the early 1900s is neither here nor there, but you might find it a rewarding experience before diving into Towne's suspenseful fictionalization of the period. In our eyes, however, we follow J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an ex-Chinatown detective turned private investigator who mostly focuses on infidelity cases. One day, a Mrs. Mulwray comes into Gittes' office and solicits his services in order to watch her husband Hollis, the driving force behind California's water and power supply. Without hesitation, Gittes and his team get on the job. They discover that there's something else lying underneath the cheating husband mystery, a greed-fueled conspiracy that Gittes begins to unspool as he probes deeper.

Nicholson makes J.J. Gittes come alive in the central role. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in The Last Detail, he steers away from the brashness of ole' "Bad Ass Buddusky" and dives into a more suave, smug demeanor befitting a detective of the time. As he schmoozes from place to place to learn more about Mawlray, it's impossible not to be drawn into his sly demeanor and indulge in every moment of it. Though he expresses the somewhat false sliminess of one in his profession, we identify with the moments where he exposes reality in his character -- especially when he clearly starts to let a few mistakes slip through the cracks. It's important for us to identify with Gittes because we're watching this story unfold somewhat through his eyes, unlike narration-heavy '40s noirs that reveal every internal detail.

It's only once we discover that the Mulwray infidelity is nothing more than the cream scooped off the top layer of corruption -- and that the woman who came to visit Mr. Gittes wasn't actually Mrs. Mulwray -- that Chinatown starts to exhibit its meticulousness as a top-shelf murder mystery. We're blindly led into the lucrative world of land ownership and the power of controlling water in a city, with the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) guiding Gittes' into it with uncertainty weighing on his, and our, shoulders. Faye Dunaway is stellar as Evelyn, especially as Chinatown progresses towards its revelatory conclusion. Eventually, we're introduced to co-water-tycoon Noah Cross, played with gusto by famed director John Huston of The Maltese Falcon, who assures us that his connection to Evelyn, wife to one tycoon and daughter to another, runs far deeper than just a struggle over land and money. And we're more than intrigued to peel the layers back in discovery of what's underneath.

Tonally, there really isn't a more perfectly-pitched film than Chinatown. Though the twists and turns grow more and more complex in Robert Towne's script, leading us through pitch-black water sites and ripe orange groves, none of it goes without purpose or simply to just get a rise out of us. It's ceiling-to-floor suspenseful, but sparks of other sensations pull off other varied levels of magnificence throughout. Though we're talking about a grim story about a grizzly cover-up murder fueled by profiteering, Towne never abandons a sense of humor with its stylish dialogue -- notably a clichéd "she's behind me, isn't she" moment that's used to potent effect. It's these rays of dry humor that work similarly to letting pressure out of an over-pumped tire; it never ceases to be intensely electric, but the rifts towards mild lightheartedness give it a grounded, human feel that allows us to connect with it amid the out-of-reach '30s era.

Part of Chinatown's seamlessness comes from sublimely crafted (Oscar-nominated) aesthetics. One of the first things you'll hear is a sleek trumpet solo from Jerry Goldsmith's original score, an arrangement pieced together at the 11th hour of the film's production. It holds a similar charged theme throughout the picture with these tunes, harking back to classic mannerisms of brooding noirs, while at other times grasping an Asian flare about its rhythm -- all while keeping its tempo vigorous with the ebbs and flows of the film's suspense. Unlike the multifaceted music, John Alonzo's cinematography only keeps '30s Los Angeles in mind as it gives us a near first-person account of J.J. Gittes' investigation. His eye, along with Polanski's attention to detail and Anthea Sylbert's sharp costume design, marvelously paints the semi-corrupt flood of lavishness from the period. It's also in the minuscule details, like the way our eyes are drawn to the hands of a broken pocket watch used to pinpoint the time a car drives away from a location, that make it such a rich visual experience.

As Chinatown begins to connect the dots late in the game, everything we've grown to appreciate about Roman Polanski's film whips into a whirling dervish of a conclusion that turns everything topsy-turvy -- then answers any and all questions we've pieced together about the mystery. Many of the great classic films leave a hint of suspicion about the events that stretch beyond the unavoidable finale, but Towne's story manages to wrap everything up in gratifying yet tragic fashion. But that melancholy dissatisfaction embodies the essence of true noirs, which certainly befits this sublime detective story. We're left wanting nothing else from Gittes' investigation and thankful to not be wrapped up in all that mess, yet completely mesmerized by the structured labyrinth of greed and villainy underneath Polanski's fingertips. Chinatown's a phenomenal departure for the typically mind-jarring director, as well as the overshadowing benchmark of the neo-noir genre that's still an ageless influence to this day.


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