5.0 out of 5 stars A Master Screenplay, A Perfect Film
Many writers consider Robert Towne's screenplay for 'Chinatown' as the perfect screenplay. It is, and is also in fact the example of how important good writing is in the art of cinema. It is perfection and in the hands of Roman Polanski it became a film masterpiece. But it all goes back to the writing. Robert Towne has taken the true story of how Los Angeles stole water...
Published on July 9 2004 by Michael C. Smith
3.0 out of 5 stars Well made, but somewhat dry
Jack Nicholson stars in this film as Jake. Roman Polanski directed this film to a Best Picture nomination. Jake is a private investigator who is hired to find out if the head of the LA Water District is cheating on his wife. This simple job leads to a full blown investigation into murder, cover up, family secrets, missing person, and more in a twisted scandal.
Published on Nov. 21 2002 by Zev Bazarov
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Master Screenplay, A Perfect Film,
Many writers consider Robert Towne's screenplay for 'Chinatown' as the perfect screenplay. It is, and is also in fact the example of how important good writing is in the art of cinema. It is perfection and in the hands of Roman Polanski it became a film masterpiece. But it all goes back to the writing. Robert Towne has taken the true story of how Los Angeles stole water to grow and wound around it the fictional story of Jake Gittes, Evelyn Mulwray, and Noah Cross and made them major participants in an ugly little tale of lust and greed. Towne's screenplay is layered like a decaying Dahlia with twisting mysteries and taught suspense. There is not a loose end in sight and a few well placed red herrings are added to the mix to delight any fan of this type of story.
The attention to detail from vintage cars, sets, real L.A. streets and alleys to the excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith and the golden cinematography of John A. Alonzo contribute to all the aspects of this classic of the post 60's film noir.
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray is at the top of her game creating a neurotic exotic hothouse flower that carries death within the heart of her dark and dirty secret. Lacquered and veiled in the most perfect black widow getup of the genre she is superbly brittle and vulnerable at the same time. She is fascinating to watch as she slowly unravels along with the mystery until she is naked in the horror of what her past and present prison is. This is a great performance by a great artist.
As Evelyn's father Noah Cross, John Huston is the debauched cancerous center of evil and greed captured within the crumbling casing of a seemingly charming old man. He too gives the performance of a lifetime and his soliloquy on what a man is capable of is chilling.
The center of this masterwork is Jack Nicholson who became a star with this, the best of his early work. His J. J. Gittes is hardboiled and ruthless in getting to the bottom of why he is being used to take the fall for a murder. He embodies the soul of Bogart and the heart of a romantic fighting to stay tuff in a rotten world. He is drawn with such skill that he seems not to be acting but simply existing the real world of L.A. in the late 1930's.
"Chinatown" is seminal in its place in film history. It bridged and old and forgotten genre with a new Hollywood in its post studio infancy and laid the groundwork for later films of equal ambition such as "Mullholland Falls" and "L.A. Confidential".
This is one of the best film ever made and a must have for any serious film collector.
5.0 out of 5 stars THIS IS WHAT FILM IS SUPPOSED TO BE,
The mid-1970s saw a spate of "government conspiracy" films, all with liberal themes that emanated from Watergate. None of them were about Kennedy stealing the 1960 election. Hmm.
"Chinatown" (1974) may be the best screenplay ever written. A historical look at 1930s Los Angeles, it actually condensed events from the 1900s with events that, uh, never happened but made for good drama. Written by L.A. native Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, produced by Evans and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunnaway and famed director John Huston, it told the story of how Los Angeles became a metropolis. In Towne's version, Huston "owns" the L.A. Department of Water & Power with a character based on actual L.A. City engineer William Mulholland. Mulholland had orchestrated the political deal which built the aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley into the L.A. Basin, allowing millions of Southern Californians to keep their lawns green to this day.
The Mulholland character is "sacrificed" at the altar of greed, embodied by Huston, who secretly buys the San Fernando Valley, knowing that once the water deal is set, it will be incorporated into the city, making him a gazillionaire. It is rather cynical, although nobody suggests the L.A. "city fathers" were boy scouts. The same old theme is that capitalism and American political power are corrupt. To make sure the audience is convinced the corruption is beyond redemption, Huston is in the end found out be an insatiable, incestual monster. He plays the role so well it brings up minds-eye imagery of his real daughter, Angelica. The film is utterly beyond any criticism, regardless of political colorization. For decades, film students and screenwriters have studied it. It spawned an artistic quest to lace the screen with symbols, metaphors, backstory, and twists.
"Chinatown" seems to be the apex of the American film period, the mid-1970s. The period from 1960 to 1979 is unparalleled, but the backstory of the people who created these classics is a telling tale of why the genre leans to the Left. In the 1960s, film schools became popular. Four schools emerged, and have held their place as the place to learn the craft. In Los Angeles there was the USC School of Cinema-Television. Their first big alumnus was "Star Wars" director George Lucas. UCLA combined their film school with their drama program, so as to bring actors, writers, directors and producers together. Coppola went to UCLA along with a future rock star named Jim Morrison, who would form The Doors with another UCLA film alumnus, keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
AUTHOR OF "BARRY BONDS: BASEBALL'S SUPERMAN"
5.0 out of 5 stars Chinatown: A Cinematic Masterpiece,
This is simply one of the finest films EVER made. It is MY personal favorite film of all time and was judged one of the top 25 best films of all time by the American Film Institute for very good reasons. First of all, the script is brilliant. This film was MADE to be owned, since on first viewing the spectator won't realize that EVERYTHING in the film, down to the pictures on the walls and seemingly off-handed remarks by the characters are PART of the story. In one line from the film, Noah Cross says ".... you may THINK you know what you are dealing with, Mr. Gittes, but believe me, you don't" and that statement could not be more "on target".... This movie gives the viewer clue after clue along the way.... but one should NEVER rewind or go back until the entire movie is viewed.... but absolutely play it a second time a week or so later... and suddenly you find the clues, the lies and the deception stands out in bold relief. I have seen Chinatown at least 25 times over the years... and it still fascinates me. Nicholson deserved the Oscar for this film. Dunaway was sultry and marvelous. John Huston was absolutely convincing as Noah Cross, the man with unlimited power and even Diane Ladd, in a minor role as "Ida Sessions"... a small time "working girl" was perfection. The DVD transfer is not perfect... I would say it is a 9 on a scale of 10, some fuzz here and there and some background noise in the quieter parts... but overall it looks clear, color corrected and clean. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, although composed in a week, is probably his best score. THIS FILM IS NOW 30 years old and we deserve a 2 disc boxed set with the COMPLETE score (the CD soundtrack only has about 35 minutes of SOME of the cues) and we deserve some still frames, some information about WHERE the scenes were filmed and so forth. ON the Criterion release on Laserdisc several years ago, you could see the entire film with ONLY the music score (L.A. Confidential has that feature on DVD)... this one would be terrific to watch that way. Overall... this film is a MUST have for any fan of film noir and cinematic perfection.
5.0 out of 5 stars Forget "The Pianist" and buy Polanski's masterpiece...,
With all the Oscar hoopla this past year around director Roman Polanski's sprawling, if flawed "The Pianist," one would think that it's the only Polanski movie out there. Well, if you've seen "The Pianist," you've seen a Holocaust movie like the rest of 'em. Take a trip back to Polanski's 1974 movie "Chinatown" and forget all you know.
Who knew a movie about a water conspiracy would be so nail-bitingly intriguing, and who'd a thought that screenwriter Robert Towne could take an old, dying genre (the "gumshoe" movie) and turn it into arguably the best screenplay this side of "Citizen Kane" and "All About Eve"? It's all here, with Jack Nicholson as smooth private eye Jake Gittes, and Faye Dunaway as the cryptic Evelyn Mulwray. Look closely, though. As "Chinatown" unfolds, it looks like it's going to be the typical detective movie, but twists and turns in the film's complicated narrative turn a simple San Fransisco water conspiracy into a twisted, perverse, nightmare that reeks of the Electra complex.
Yes, "The Maltese Falcon" has the style that set a trend, and "The Big Sleep" juggles plot strands like a sideshow freak, but "Chinatown" adds a tragic depth to its narrative that was never seen in such a movie and has never been seen since. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are no Nick and Nora Charles - there's a deep secret lying beneath it all that makes the movie a haunting and unforgettable experience. Dunaway hides the film's tragedy well, revealing it in an infamous scene that proves this is the finest work she's ever done. And Nicholson. Drawn slowly into a twisted web of corruption and deceit, he seems almost too smart for it, but Towne's script proves that there is a heart beneath his inquisitive glare, and it, along with all of ours, is broken in the film's devastating finale.
If you're into gumshoe flicks, this is the best one out there, but it also stands as one of the finest American films of all time. Just look at the film's ending - though "American," it carries a tragic, "European" touch that was no doubt a product of the painful history of Polanski. In a way, this movie relays the torture and pain of his Holocaust experience in a better fashion than "The Pianist." Even without digging into director's intentions, the final product of the movie is haunting, tragic, and won't get out of your head for days. One of the great lines of the film is "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." Fortunately, forgetting "Chinatown" is something anyone that ever sees it will never be able to do.
5.0 out of 5 stars Watergate & the Holocaust,
Sure its about incest and the rapacity of LA but without Polanski's eyewitness to the Holocaust and a country in the midst of political, social and moral crisis, there wouldn't be, "Chinatown."
The music for the opening credits couldn't be more perfect, capturing the big band sound of the thirties but hinting at a deep and painful weariness that goes to the heart of the film. This is a film of beautiful surfaces where evil suddenly appears and shocks like maggots swarming the pit of the perfect peach.
Jack Nicholson makes J.J. Gittes sleazy, angry and desperate whose quest for truth is both foolish and noble. Fay Dunaway displays a fragile strength and desperate pain as Evelyn Mulray that she doles out beautifully over the course of the film. John Huston uses his oily warmth to great creepy effect.
And then there is the screenplay; beautifully constructed, wonderfully original with dialog that is both memorable and natural. Is there a better original screenplay in Hollywood history?
Finally what is a mystery to me is how this film which is so sad and hopeless manages to feel so inspiring. Is it that in its richness like all great works of art is the stuff of life?
5.0 out of 5 stars Aging Like a Fine Wine,
This film, in its entirety, is only getting better with age. For those that have not seen it, that's alright. It's not the catchiest, flashiest cover art at first glance. But just like the film itself, the cover art demands closer inspection. A true classic can truly be determined by the test of time. When I first saw this film I thought it was good, it didn't move me that way it does now. Just after it ended, however, I found myself replaying the scenes in my head, over and over. I must have watched it again within a week or two. Soon after that I bought it, and it is now a film I cherish deeply.
Roman Polanski's cinematic translation of Robert Towne's script is beyond words. Every scene is pristine, but delicate. Every shot intentional for a colorized film noir feel, yet the stylization never feels intrusive.
Jack Nicholson. What can I saw about Jack? One of his best performances- up there with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and About Schmidt.
I love this film, and so will you. If not, give it another chance down the road, I promise you won't be disappointed.
5.0 out of 5 stars Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown.......,
Watching Chinatown again recently, it struck me that it is just about perfect. All the elements of film-making were performed here at an extraordinarily high level, and the result is one of the most satisfying movies ever made. Much imitated, rarely equalled, Chinatown is THE standard against which period mysteries must be measured.
Start with the wonderful script by Robert Towne that borrows from and re-imagines LA history without straying too far from the facts. A convoluted story of local political machinations is also the setting for a murder mystery set amid family secrets and betrayals. His plot, characters and dialogue entertain and intrigue us and the film's brilliant central metaphor, Chinatown, reveals, conceals and resonates long after the credits roll. Great stuff.
Next, people the story with a terrific cast led by a sauve and cynical Jack Nicholson as PI Jake Gittes, who despite his worldliness is in way-over-his-head without knowing it, Faye Dunaway as the fragile femme fatale, Evelyn Mulwray, and John Huston as one of the most memorable villains in moviedom as the rich & powerful, ruthless yet seemingly benign, Noah Cross. The supporting players are equally well-cast.
Then put this story and cast in the hands of a brilliant director with an equally gifted cinematographer, and turn them loose. Roman Polanski was an inspired choice to direct this film, not only because (as mentioned in the retrospective on the DVD) he brought a European sensiblity to this very American story of political & economic intrigue but also because as he had demonstrated in his earlier works (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, etc.) Polanski is adept at creating tension and dread on film. Chinatown's great success is in the atmosphere and tension and ominous feel of foreboding that overlays the film. We, like Jake, don't know where we are going or how these disparate threads of story tie together, but we sense it is dangerous to follow them and that something, unrevealed, is just beyond our grasp. Chinatown succeeds because its mystery is actually mysterious, its story complex, its secrets genuinely surprising.
Finally, art direction, costuming and period detail in Chinatown is beautiful and meticulous. And the music score is so good that it has been imitated many times in Chinatown wannabes.
There have been many attempts to emulate the quality of Chinatown, a few successfully (LA Confidential), many poorly (Mulholland Falls). Chinatown is about as good as Hollywood can do, meeting both the obligations of entertainment while uniting and presenting the various craftsmanship of film-making at such a high standard that it raises the result to the level of art.
This unique confluence of story and talent occurs rarely, but when it clicks, as it did so brilliantly in Chinatown, the result is the masterpiece we all recognized from its initial release. A timeless and indispensible film that would be diminished by any change or subtraction of any piece of its construct, this one should not be missed. A great film
5.0 out of 5 stars Shadows and Darkness in Daylight,
The film's title refers to an area of Los Angeles where private investigator J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) once served as a police officer. It also suggests the difficulties of finding one's way in unfamiliar territory. Directed by Roman Polanski who received (in absentia) an Academy Award in 2003 for his direction of The Pianist, this film seems to have multiple layers of meaning and apparent meaning. Yes, it is well within the noir tradition but it also seems to reflect so much of the social discord during the decade prior to when it was released (1974) even as it examines Los Angeles during the 1930s, amidst the Great Depression but also a time when so many accumulated vast wealth through sometimes questionable business practices. (If I recall correctly, the number of millionaires in the United States quintupled during the decade following the collapse of the stock market in 1929.) By all accounts, Noah Cross (Huston) is an immensely wealthy and power force within the city's business community. For reasons which are revealed in the film, Gittes finds himself in an adversarial relationship with Cross and has little chance of prevailing against him. Now a private investigator, Gittes is retained by Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband Hollis whose behavior has raised questions and caused her to be concerned. Gittes' involvement with her leads to his conflicts with Cross, for reasons which neither Gittes nor we understand until much later in the film. Polanksi briefly appears in the film (an Hitchcockian touch) as the Man with a Knife...and he uses it. Throughout much of the movie, neither Gittes nor we know what's happening. Individuals as well as circumstances are not what they appear to be. It's as if Gittes and we are being toyed with...a brilliant strategy on Polanski's part to sustain interest with precise pacing while creating tensions and even conflicts whose nature evades understanding. At one point Cross tells Gittes "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." He didn't and, at that point, neither did I.
Obviously, this film intrigues me, in part because it frustrates me as I must struggle (as does Gittes) to understand various relationships which may be real or imagined...both by me and by most of those involved. What's with Evelyn Mulwray? What information is she concealing? To what extent (if any) is her husband Hollis involved with Cross? What is her own relationship with Cross? Whom and what does Gittes threaten? Why? (For most of the film, he doesn't know.) I could go on and on about ambiguities. It is paradoxical that so many of its important scenes are bathed by dazzling Southern California sunshine in this prime example of a film noir.
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely sterling film,
The success of THE PIANIST recalls Roman Polanski's glory days, when in just over a decade he turned out such stunning classics like KNIFE IN WATER, REPULSION, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, ROSEMARY'S BABY, and this film, CHINATOWN. One thing all these films have in common is the great difficulty the main character has in each film in discovering what is appearance and what is reality, perhaps in the end discovering that reality is an illusion. CHINATOWN is a detective film that isn't. In the usual detective film, the gumshoe follows a string of clues and in the end is able to assert order over chaos by "solving" the mystery. In CHINATOWN, on the other hand, Jack Nicholson's J. J. Gittes solves the mystery only to uncover the incomprehensible and the unfathomable. Instead of asserting the primacy of order over chaos, the chaos engulfs him, visually represented by the crowding of Asians around Gittes in the films' closing shot. "Chinatown," where the final shot takes place, becomes a metaphor for the inscrutable and opaque quality of life itself.
This is a meticulously made film, and it is susceptible to analysis at a very deep level. For instance, it isn't accidental that at one point Faye Dunaway tells Nicholson, upon noticing a discoloration in her eye, that it is a flaw in the iris. Later, that is the eye through which she is shot and killed.
The plot is very, very loosely based on the life of William Mulholland, who was responsible for building the viaduct that brought water to LA from Owens Valley. That real life incident took place several decades earlier than the time in which CHINATOWN was set, but with the central role that water has played in the Los Angeles's, the incident was well chosen. The part involving Faye Dunaway and her daughter had, thank god, no counterpart in Mulholland's life.
It is almost impossible to say of an actor like Jack Nicholson that one role is his finest, but one can at least state that his turn as Jake Gittes is one of his very finest performances. His fortitude in the face of moral horror provides the foundation for the narrative, and his collapse upon looking into the heart of the void at the end of the film establishes precisely the right tone. If we weren't ourselves horrified and crushed at the end, we would be merely by gazing into his stunned and bewildered face. Similarly, Faye Dunaway was as good as she would ever be as Evelyn Mulray. John Huston managed to create one of the vilest characters in the history of film, while Roman Polanski himself managed to be one of the scariest. The scene where Polanski cuts Nicholson's nose is rightfully remembered as one of the most vivid in the movies.
Unfortunately, after this film Polanski's string of great films came to an end, those following in the next couple of decades ranging from decent to out and out awful. Hopefully his resurrection with THE PIANIST will signal a return to form of one of the most interesting directors of the 1960s.
4.0 out of 5 stars Greatest movie of all time,but DVD disappoints just a bit,
Since this classic has been reviewed by so many others, I thought I would focus more on the DVD itself. It was released in 1999 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film but being new to the DVD world, I just purchased it recently.
1) The print is great and the sound crystal clear. Considering I only had a VHS copied from Cinemax over 10 years ago and the commerical ridden version on AMC to tide me over the last few years, it was wonderful to see the film in letterbox format. I originally saw this film in a giant, single screen grand theatre back in 1974, before the attack of the multi-plexes, and watching the DVD on a big-screen tv brought back those memories quickly. All I was missing was the wood-back, poorly cushioned seat. So from that standpoint, the DVD gets 5 stars.
2) Scene selection - Unfortunately, the DVD falls short here. There are only 15 or so scene selections and when the average DVD contains about 2 dozen, I figure somewhere along the way, cost was a factor. I know this is a nit-pick kind of thing but Chinatown is filled with snippets of great scenes and I can't always get to the points I want to without hitting the fast forward button in addition to the skip. I would think just about every "fade to black" occurence, and this movie contains many, could have been a selection. Sorry, as a fan who enjoys just watching some of the classic lines/scenes ("....and I like breathing through it...", "...to tell you the truth, I lied a little..."), I feel shortchanged. Rate 2.5 stars.
3) There is an interview with the three biggest "behind the scenes" participants, producer Robert Evans, writer Robert Towne, and director Roman Polanski. Although there are a few tidbits of fun trivia(the name of the other actress the studio apparently wanted instead of Dunaway, Polanski pointing out an "incorrect technicality" of a scene where Gittes is snapping a picture) the interviews seemed short and fell a little short of my expectations. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of the documentary PBS did years ago about great mystery films. "Chinatown" was dissected and it was much more in depth. For example, something pointed out then that I never noticed and has made me appreciate the film even more over the years was how Polanski shot many scenes from behind Gittes, over his shoulder. The idea was to bring the viewer into the film almost as a character standing behind Gittes. We discover things as he does. The scene where Gittes discovers the body of Ida Sessions was discussed in great detail. To me, this is one of the "little things" that make this film a classic. I imagine there must have been a good reason why none of the actors were part of the interviews. I mean this film was rated number 19 on the AFI greatest films of all time list and you would think someone would appreciate that enough to participate. Dunaway once wrote about about how Nicholson was upset when shooting a scene interfered with him watching a Laker game. I guess I wanted to hear that story verbally. I know, nit-picking again but come on Paramount, dole out a few bucks to round some people up. 3 stars.
Bottom line, this film is still worth the purchase price no matter the shortcomings. After all, the film is what we watch over and over, not the extras. My hope is that with the 30th anniversary quickly approaching and DVD's being embraced by consumers much more now than in 1999, maybe we will get the background documentary and scene selection us "Chinatown junkies" may want to see.
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Chinatown [Blu-ray] (Bilingual) by Roman Polanski (Blu-ray - 2012)
CDN$ 32.99 CDN$ 27.99