Chinatown Review

Chinatown is a 1974 noir film written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. It was nominated for several Oscars in 1975 and won Best Original Screenplay. The screenplay has become regarded as one of the best of all time and is used in several screenwriting classes.

Private Detective JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to solve the murder of the head of the California water department. However, he discovers that there is more than murder afoot, including a conspiracy involving the deceased man's widow (Faye Dunaway) and her father, who ran the department with his son in law.

I've shaved a lot off of that synopsis, because there are a lot of really good, unexpected twists that I don't want to spoil for you. The story is complex, but in a good way. It forces you to pay attention to all the little details that form the bigger picture. It's also enjoyable to watch this small mystery unfurl into something much bigger in scope, as shocking twists are revealed and the scope of the mystery continues to satisfyingly grow.

The dialogue is really good. I'm not sure if it's Oscar worthy good, but it's still really well written. It manages to sound natural, like things these characters would actually be saying, but it's also fun to listen to, with some dry quips and slick wordplay. It also pulls off the surprisingly complicated feat of delivering exposition without sounding like exposition. It is helped in this regard by the fact that it's a mystery, so a lot of the dialogue is the characters talking about the case and how everything connects to one another, but even then it's still really difficult to pull off something like that. The film does this by making the desire to know more stemming from or intermingling with compelling personal drama. There's a part where a big piece of the puzzle falls into place for the main character, but the witness doesn't want to tell the detective what's going on because she's afraid of what might happen to somebody she has a intimate relationship with. It's a difficult choice for her to make and she breaks down into tears when she gives the exposition. That is really good screenplay structure and it's partially why it earned that Oscar.

The characters are all pretty good. Initially, they slip into the genre cliches of bitter PI, mysterious dame and cop who's two steps behind the PI, but as the story goes on they gain real personal depth and identities of their own.

When I really think about it, the film is basically a stripping down of noir's oldest cliches. The one-dimensional characters listed earlier are given darker backstories as to why they are the way they are, the dialogue, while evoking the snappy style of noir, is eventually abandoned when the characters lose their cool and it doesn't even have the typical noir style ending, which is a bit of a bummer, but in a way, it's what was needed for this kind of film.

The sets, props and costumes are a perfect recreation of what we all think the 1930s looked like through the lens of a noir story: guys in suits, trench coats and trilbies, women in dresses and blouses. The cars are all retro, everybody smokes cigarettes out of rectangular tin cases and wrist watches all look like squares. It's very impressive, but it's not like you haven't seen it before.

The color palette is very one note without much variety. The buildings, clothes and lighting are all shades of black, grey, tan, and beige. It works for the tone they're going for, noir being brought down on reality and it's not like there's moments where brighter or happier colors would've been appropriate, so I suppose there's nothing to complain about here.

The score is impressive when considering the fact that the score had to be completed in only ten days. However, other than the closing theme, I can't remember any other piece of score from the entire movie.

The cinematography and editing are good, with nice long shots of the actors. This allows us to have a better sense of immersion, as if we were watching the events happen in real time scene by scene. However, even though I am a proponent of tripod camera set up, I feel that there were a few parts that could've used some shaky cam and close-ups. There's a scene where there's really exciting music playing, but all we see is a long shot of Gittes getting out of his car. I think it would've made the moment more appropriately intense if there had been hand-held camera of his getting out and running up to the door. Maybe the technology just wasn't available at the time.

I feel I must mention one piece of blocking during the very beginning, because I thought it was very well done. Gittes is having a conversation with a client and his two assistance are in the same room, one behind Gittes and one behind the client. By having us see both of the assistants behind the conversation the director is letting us know that while they are not part of the conversation, they are listening in anyway. I thought it was very well done.

Dark lighting is another mark of noir filmmaking, but it's a staple that is only used sparingly in this film. It seems like the only time they shoot a scene at night is when something dangerous is about to occur. It's dark when Gittes gets his nose cut, when he's attacked at the nursing home and at the ending when everything comes to a dangerous head. I appreciate that they didn't feel the need to overcompensate by having literally every scene taking place at night (*cough cough* Sin City).

The acting is great, especially from Nicholson, who I think gives the most restrained performance of his career. He slips right into the shoes of this self-assured, unorthodox snoop. Sure, there are a few times he gets angry, but they never seem over the top of played for comedy. They feel like appropriate times to get uproariously angry. Dunaway does a fine job as the mysterious dame, able convey reserved emotions and emotions being let out. It's just an impressive display of acting talent all around.

Summary: Chinatown is the essential noir film. It's got the tangled mysteries and intrigue of older, black and white detective films, but the edge and acting power of 70s cinema. It's a journey of danger and emotion that should definitely be checked out.


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