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5.0 out of 5 stars You Can't Ever Forget "Chinatown", July 27, 2002
This review is from: Chinatown (25th Anniversary Edition) [VHS] (VHS Tape)
About an hour into "Chinatown", Noah Cross (John Huston) says to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." Gittes, whose heard this rap before, just smiles. "Why is that funny?" asks Cross. "It's what the D.A. used to tell me about Chinatown." If any exchange defines "Chinatown" the movie then this is it. It's a film where the cliched metaphor of the onion is quite apt: the more layers you peel away, the more layers you find. And the less you're likely to understand. It begins life as a simple detective story, but eventually spins out of control into a web of intrigue (another cliched metaphor) that not only includes the murder of water commissioner Hollis Mulwray, but the entirety of 1930's Los Angeles.
Into this web is sprung Jake Gittes, a man who seems to be a typical film noir detective, but upon closer inspection is much more. Or, as we shall see, much less. I'd argue that Jake is an existential anti-hero, seemingly in control of every situation he enters in to, but ultimately just a pawn on an unfathomable chessboard. Minor notes in the movie confirm this hypothesis. A former client calls Jake on the phone, looking for his discretion. "Are you alone, Mr. Gittes?" she asks. "Isn't everybody?" Jake replies, clowning for his operatives, but saying more than he really intends to. It's not the last time he inadvertently comments on the futility of his existence. "That must really smart," says Yelburton, the deputy water commissioner, regarding Jake's newly bandaged nose. "Only when I breathe," he replies, pointing out the paradox. The bandaged nose also acts like a mask. Whereas Jake starts the movie as a handsome man in a slick suit (this is primetime Nicholson), he is slowly physically destroyed. The bandage is just the icing on the cake; it serves as a mask during the movie's middle third, hiding Jake's face and, at the same time, suppressing his identity. Identity, as an issue, is clouded by the fact that no one he meets can seem to get his name right. Cross, in what may be intentional, keeps calling him "Mr. Gitz" (correctly pronounced, 'Gittes' rhymes with 'kitties'). So not only is he a man with no face, he is a man with no name. Jake Gittes, as he gets deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding him, is ceasing to exist.
But that's not to say that he is a cipher of a character. How could he be when played by such a vibrant actor? Nicholson is subdued and cool here, in just the right amounts. He captures Jake's slow decent into near madness perfectly, while always allowing the man some sense of control. Nicholson is always watchable in whatever he does, but this may be his best performance because it asks him to tone down his manic energy, allowing it to bubble over in moments, while alluding to it as subtext in others.
Behind him, the acting is mostly superb. John Huston, in his few brief scenes, makes an indelible mark as the pure face of evil. Huston's deep, gravelly voice and imposing -- even at age 68 -- frame do a lot at conveying the man's power, while his twinkling eyes draw you to him, even though you know better. Although best known as a legendary director, Huston nearly steals the show here. Not faring as well is Faye Dunaway. She plays her femme fatale role with a bit too much iciness, and, in moments, melodrama. Although she holds her own, and portrays great anguish, in the film's climactic confessional scene, for the most part Dunaway isn't up to snuff.
Roman Polanski, who takes a brief but memorable role as the Man With Knife (that's how he's quite functionally billed), directs with his usual visual flare. Shots are composed as reflections in camera lenses or in a car's side mirror. The opening scene begins with a series of photographs detailing one wife's infidelity. Without saying anything, and without showing the audience the room around them, the scene is set perfectly. It's archetypal of how he shoots the rest of the film: with style and subtlety.
Maybe I put too much stock in what William Goldman has to say, but "Chinatown" has to be a frontrunner when tallying up the best screenplays of all time. A good screenplay will have two things going for it: a strong structure (of vital importance always), and interesting dialogue (useful in supporting the structure and in adding colour to the proceedings). Towne gets full marks on both counts. Structurally, it's a dream, a marvelous example of the micro turning into the macro as the web of intrigue broadens exponentially, while maintaining its power on the smaller scale all along. Add to this the crisp, precise dialogue, and you've got a screenplay that's as much fun to listen to as it is to follow. Jake is full of wisecracks and homespun wisdom. When asked about Mulwray's character, Yelburton denies ever hearing him talk about infidelity: "He never even kids about it." "Maybe he takes it very seriously," says Jake. When Cross asks if Lou Escobar, the investigating officer who's handling the Mulwray murder case, is an honest man, Jakes replies, "Far as it goes... of course he has to swim in the same water we all do." On its own this would be a great line, but in "Chinatown", where the water of L.A. plays a major role in the plot, its damn well genius.
"Chinatown" is much more than your average detective story. It's a narrative dripping in character, intrigue, and history. I'd sure like to see just what it was that happened in Chinatown, back in Jake's days on the police force, which made him the cynical sleuth he's become. It'd make a great prequel. As it stands, the movie we've got is a crackerjack yarn, rich enough to demand multiple viewings.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 11, 2008 5:26:24 PM PDT
cvairag says:
Are you kidding?? Faye Dunaway gives the last of the great "studio-star" performances - her nuanced performance is "retro" incarnate. I think it's her greatest moment in film.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2009 12:13:39 PM PDT
I would agree. The iciness and reserve the reviewer finds fault with would have been how someone from that social strata and that era would have acted. Today the rich may be different, but her performance nail the 1930s spot-on.

For a very different, less reserved Faye Dunaway, see Network.
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