by MP Bartley
Any film critic, amateur or otherwise, will probably tell you that the hardest films to review are the average films, or those that are neither particularly good or bad. The films that suck considerably, they're the easy ones, as any critic can unleash an avalanche of hate upon them. But then, at the absolute other end of the scale, is a film like 'Chinatown'. A film that is a work of genius, a work of art, and gripping from start to finish.Seriously, if someone came up to me today and said "So what's so great about Chinatown?", my answer would be "Everything".
"Like Jake, you'll never forget it once you go there."
Because it's true, everything is great about 'Chinatown'. The acting, the direction, the editing, the cinematography, the music, the script, the production design...flawless, each and every one. Okay?
Oh, alright then, I'll put some more meat on the bones. 1930's LA and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private eye, making a comfortable living investigating adultery and cheating partners. When he's hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Fay Dunaway) he thinks it's another bread and butter case. But, as plans to construct a new dam to ease the city-wide drought begin to get involved in the case, bodies start to mount up, and more and more questions need to be answered, Jake discovers that this case is going to take him into a place far darker and nastier than anywhere else he's ever been.
What's immediately interesting about 'Chinatown' is that this is a 30's private eye flick, shot through with a 70's sensibility. By the 1970's Vietnam had disillusioned the entire nation, and suddenly you didn't know who to trust. Paranoid thrillers like 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'The Parallax View' found a receptive audience, and now 'Chinatown' showed that even in the past nothing was as it seemed. Polanksi floods the film, in bright, unceasing sunlight, but this is far from a sunny, picturesque, cinematic view of an age where everything was more innocent. Instead, Polanski shows that this LA is a corpse, rotting and being bleached dry by the sun. Disease and corruption lurks everywhere from city politics to Evelyn's father, Noah Cross (John Huston). Towne's script paints a cynical streak a mile wide right through 'Chinatown', leading to a downbeat, bleak ending that ranks alongside 'Night of the Living Dead' or 'Se7en' but for entirely different reasons.
It's clear, though, that Polanski and Towne aren't merely rehashing another era as a metaphor for the current times, they know the detective genre inside out. The period detail is outstanding, but never falls into parody, while the script is a delight. Teasing the audience with its complexities, throwing them one way then the other, with a particular left-turn blinding everybody, it's reminiscent of 'The Big Sleep' or 'To Have and To Have Not' at their finest. This is not a film that will have a pointless amount of exposition, or handily recap everything for you every five minutes, instead Towne trusting that you can remember events from 15 minutes ago.
If you got any group of film-lovers together in a room, and then asked them to name the greatest actor ever, you can guarantee that there'd be an almighty fight about it. And you could pretty much guarantee that either Pacino or De Niro would be declared the winner. But for this reviewer, Jack Nicholson would take the crown without breaking a sweat. Whereas, underneath their intensity and outstanding performances you can sometimes see the cogs turning and the tricks with Pacino and De Niro, you never get that with Nicholson. He slips into each role with a naturalistic ease and never seems out of place or mis-cast. I firmly believe that whereas De Niro and Pacino probably couldn't do the roles that Nicholson has, Nicholson could do theirs.
But I digress, Nicholson is superb here, as barely a scene goes by without him in it, and he dominates the screen with his towering and intelligent presence. But he isn't merely channeling the memory of Bogart here, Gittes is someone entirely different. A little more charming, a little less self-confident, it's difficult to imagine Bogart's Marlowe taking the beatings that Gittes does here, or letting his outward mask of control and confidence slowly slip and fracture, as Nicholson does, when events start to get out of his control.
Meanwhile, Dunaway does fine work that could proudly sit alongside Bacall, as the damsel in distress who knows more than she's letting on. But special praise should also go to the villian of the piece, John Huston, who should be at home in this genre after helping to create it with 'The Maltese Falcon'. Despite having a mere two scenes, his hulking form throughs a shadow over the film, and it's only by the end that we realise just how vile this guy is. If Polanksi's LA is a rotting corpse, Cross is the cancerous maggot burrowed deep in the centre of it.The private eye flick is one that was thought to be dead and buried after the 1950's, but Towne, Polanksi and Nicholson, prove that there's life in it yet. But this isn't simply a repackaging of another style, or a homage to an era long gone, it's something much nastier, much murkier and much more relevant. It's also an absolute work of art, that entrances you under its seedy spell from beginning to end.
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originally posted: 11/16/05 21:53:47