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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 15.38%
Average: 5.77%
Pretty Bad: 1.92%
Total Crap: 1.92%

1 review, 46 user ratings

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by MP Bartley

"Like Jake, you'll never forget it once you go there."
5 stars

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".
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
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User Comments

9/15/18 Anne worth watching 4 stars
9/13/17 morris campbell not bad but overrated 4 stars
4/27/16 Ken A neo-noir classic 5 stars
4/02/13 Jeff Wilder Classic deserving of its reputation. 5 stars
6/01/10 User Name The greatest of all neo-noirs; a modern classic worth revisit. 5 stars
9/17/08 Jeph As perfect as perfect gets. Musical score, too, is right-on. 5 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic Superb modern noir with brilliantly effective scenes, performances, sript & photography 5 stars
9/08/06 AnnieG Plot was rather convoluted, and never really explains itself at the end. 3 stars
7/28/06 Lizzie to long 2 stars
6/22/06 TB Great mystery movie with Nicholson 4 stars
6/05/06 Thomas VERY OVERRATED.Watch The Usual Suspects instead 1 stars
1/10/06 Smitty Nicholson's best performance, and the academy award went to Art Carney - go figure 5 stars
11/22/05 Kurtis J. Beard Masterpiece. Nicholsons's best. Polanski's best. Best modern noir. 5 stars
11/18/05 M.F. a great film---one of the best 5 stars
11/18/05 Robert Braunfeld One of the great classics not to be missed 5 stars
11/17/05 MrsVoorheesBabyBoy My nose still hurts. 4 stars
10/26/05 roy holt classic film noir 5 stars
7/11/05 JFK wow 5 stars
5/27/05 Lord Haw Haw Supernaturally good. One of the best movies of the 20th century. 5 stars
4/04/05 indrid cold Very well done, but not quite sure why it's supposed to be a masterpiece. 4 stars
2/22/05 Captain Craig I liked it better the first 3 times I saw it. Still good though. 4 stars
1/31/05 Lance Wright One everyone's Best 100 list and deservedly so 5 stars
12/20/04 sbpat21 brilliance 5 stars
11/29/04 DM One of the all-time best film noirs 5 stars
9/03/04 T.B. Always There Jake 4 stars
6/14/04 dfc Superb, one of the best ever. Hollywood can't make films like this anymore. 5 stars
1/15/04 Betty White Dunaway & Nicholson are powerhouses in this groundbreaking drama. 5 stars
11/29/03 john elegant and classy - this as good as it gets 5 stars
8/19/03 Spock_Enterprise Forget Jake, It's Chinatown 5 stars
7/01/03 AD amazing 5 stars
6/18/03 Andrew Callaway Incredible. See Polanski at his best. One of the best noir pictures ever. 5 stars
4/11/03 Jack Bourbon One of the all time best. Could hardly be any better. Actual cinematic art. 5 stars
3/22/03 Jack Sommersby A near-perfect film achievement. Haunting, disturbing, and beautiful. 5 stars
1/20/03 Andrew Callaway I'm just wondering if this needs a review. 5 stars
11/03/02 Donald Cockram Roman Polanski's masterwork ... one of the finest films ever. 5 stars
10/16/02 Charles Tatum The most overrated, overanalyzed film ever 3 stars
9/21/02 I Can't Swim You young assholes wouldn't know a good movie if it bit your lardasses 5 stars
1/30/02 Michael Grimm all I can say is WOW!!! 5 stars
1/25/02 Andrew Carden Excellent Movie. 5 stars
9/06/01 spaceworm Wake-up call to those of you tossing around "greatest movie ever" elsewhere. 5 stars
7/03/01 Monday Morning Great period piece 5 stars
4/23/01 Skip Young I'm shoked by these comments below. You guys are way off on this one. 5 stars
4/13/01 R.W. Welch Beautifully executed but less than riveting. 4 stars
4/12/01 Tyrone I can see why people Like it but I was slightly dissapointed by it - too slow 3 stars
2/24/01 The Bomb 69 this movie rocked, John Huston was creepy, and it had an ending that made you think 5 stars
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  02-Aug-1974 (R)



Directed by
  Roman Polanski

Written by
  Robert Towne

  Jack Nicholson
  Faye Dunaway
  John Huston
  Perry Lopez
  John Hillerman
  Diane Ladd

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