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A Review of Polanski's 1974 Film, "Chinatown"

Updated on July 31, 2016

“I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes,” Faye Dunaway says with a certain balance of menace and exasperation. “Well, you're going to get it.” Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway while unconventionally crossing romance, thrill, and suspense. The Polish-French filmmaker is notable for films wide in genre from horror films like Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), to absurdist comedy film What? (1973). Similarly to Casablanca (1942), Chinatown pastes a unique story over a historical scene. Instead of World War II, Polanski chooses to intertwine Nicholson and Dunaway in the less widely known water wars of Los Angeles County. Like Nicholson’s rough-and-tumble, yet suave lead says, “This business requires a certain amount of finesse.” And finesse is exactly what you’re in for.

Private Investigator J.J. Gittes is drawn into what starts out as a simple adultery case involving the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but what blows into a complex murder case involving the entire city. The case starts with a woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulray. The situation is complicated even further after Mr. Mulray’s death, when the real Mrs. Mulray questions Gittes’ involvement. Gittes is drawn into a complex scheme, an attempt by an unknown person to divert L.A.’s water and compromising the lifestyles of San Fernando Valley orange growers.

Jack Nicholson portrays Gittes, a crushingly humbled concoction of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. Faye Dunaway is Evelyn Mulray, a femme fatale with spunk and spirit, but lacking the sexy appeal of a clean past. Mrs. Mulray is an elegant, sharp woman. Like Gittes, she would have been the classic lead female role if not for the “flaw in the iris”. While Gittes is portrayed as the hero, several actions give off a nearly antagonistic scent. Despite his smitten interest in Mrs. Mulray (not to mention his Wayne-like ability to draw her forth) Gittes sinks into a cold and guarded Bogart without the hidden romantic charm when he slaps Mrs. Mulray across the face several times. He holds the Wayne-Bogart hubristic persona, though is not rewarded with a hero’s welcome. Instead, his decision to confront Cross, both independently and directly, leads to Mrs. Mulray’s death. Even more unconventional was the hesitance to portray Gittes as flattering. After a man, Roman Polanski’s cameo, sliced his nose, Gittes remained scarred for the remainder of the film. It is not often that a director is willing to sacrifice the facial attractiveness of the star for the majority of a film. Mrs. Mulray’s secret is revealed through a seemingly unrelated issue that pulls us back to the beginning of the film, tying up all the loose ends in ways we could never have predicted.

Nicholson and Dunaway’s performances are critical to the success of Chinatown. Both actors show the audience two sides of their respective characters which both repel and exist in harmony. Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes snatches multiple classic characters from the bold hero to the antagonistic womanizer to the impulsive spirit, and brings them all together in a way that is credible. Dunaway makes her femme fatale character Mrs. Evelyn Mulray sympathetic past her tough exterior and past mistakes, while showing as little vulnerability as possible. The cinematography balances long shots, close-ups, and visual conveyances. At times, the camera shows a vast landscape, focusing on a small detail such as a woman on a mule. By using long shots, the audience sees what Gittes is sees, and gets a more personal, play by play presentation of the story. Other times, it focuses on two people conversing. At the end of the film, the filmmaker uses cinematographic techniques to inform the audience of Mrs. Evelyn Mulray’s death – a long view of her car driving away, and then a sudden horn blast to show that her head hit the wheel. Jerry Goldsmith underscores the dark mood of the story, capturing the essence of 1940s film noir in Los Angeles. Aching melodies calmly sweeps the audience through tense moments, eased by the gentle piano and strings behind the jazzy bass.

Polanski captures an unconventional romance, drama, and crime story through characters that break the rules and focus more on a unique and fulfilling plot rather than audience appeal. Ironically, it is likely to suit audiences of many kinds – thrill seekers, crime lovers, and those just looking for a good movie to watch on a night off. I won’t reveal too much concerning the ending because, like Gittes remarks, “Have you ever heard the expression "Let sleeping dogs lie"? Sometimes you're better off not knowing.”

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