Bottom Line: If only this was the mystery genre today.
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Jake Gittes: Jack Nicholson
Evelyn Cross Mulwray: Faye Dunaway
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Is it just me, or is the crime genre changing right before our eyes? Seemingly every time I tune to FOX, CBS, or ABC, there’s always a new series headed toward television. The odds are that if it’s not a comedy, it’s a crime procedural. JAG, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones. These are all extremely entertaining crime shows that have appeared in recent years, don’t get me wrong. But they’re flawed in numerous respects. The presentation of motives are so superficially presented, and the focus veered instead toward action. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather know why the criminal did what he or she did before a chase sequence. It’s as if producers are noticing audiences accepting stories at face value, and sadly enough, we are. I turn to the film-noir genre, a grandeur that we will unfortunately never see again in its purest form. The genre presented mystery at its finest during the ’40s and ’50s, using the premises of dirt cheap, trashy pulp novels, and transforming those into beautiful, atmospheric, and engrossing “Whodunits.” Not much action is really required to construct such suspenseful dramas.
It was in 1974 that Roman Polanski impressively bridged the gap between the classic film-noir (The Third Man, Double Indemnity) and the reincarnated neo-noir (Memento, Basic Instinct). This landmark effort, Chinatown, is perhaps not as intensely brilliant as in the prior era, but it finds multiple ways to engage an audience. Polanski is masterful in the ways he handles the definitive genre structure. The results reprise the irony that composes just about every great film-noir: a simple yet completely unpredictable story. Although the simplicity is underlying, it is, in all bare essence, as basic as a man (Jack Nicholson) discovering evidence about a recently deceased man and his late adulterous acts, and how those two injustices shockingly correlate. And it’s much more the context of that scandalous, violent plot, than the occasional visual display thereof, that creates a tense, suspenseful atmosphere. Not five other directors come to mind when I try to think of who else would have churned the film from 130-something pages of Robert Towne’s screenplay, into a masterpiece. Only to escalate it further, John A. Alonzo’s cinematography, a striking, Hitchcockian combination of voyeurism, fear, and power.
On the surface, Chinatown is precisely what would come to mind when we hear, “Mystery, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.” Polanski takes the subtleties of early twentieth century crime fiction and plays hardball with them. It’s a well-handled instance of someone who sees nothing good about delaying the inevitable, nothing beneficial that will result in beating around the bush. Nicholson excels consistently in playing Jake Gittes, a character we would otherwise gawk at him taking on. If Sherlock Holmes is a bumbling detective, Nicholson plays a wise-ass cracking a case. Don’t forget the sarcastic, dark charm that later defined him in films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. Even so, he’s upstaged by Faye Dunaway, an echo to Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. A femme fatale, attractive but sly and impulsive. The film is a small number of steps away from a convincing Golden Age film-noir; given the aforementioned, it’d be just as remarkable in that former era.