Chinatown presents the noir genre at its best. J.J. Gittes is a private detective working in Los Angeles in 1937. He has a little dirt on everyone and can handle himself in most situations. Gittes once worked in Chinatown for the district attorney, but has since gone private. Now, he mostly deals with matrimonial cases, spouses cheating on one another, and he is growing tired of it.
A case of the same sort falls into his lap early in the film, but things turn out to be much more than they seem. He sticks with it because the case intrigues him, it reminds him of the old days. Maybe he wanted the thrill he was lost when he started his own agency. He was also wronged though, and what better reason to search for the truth than to figure out who’s been screwing with you. At one point, Gittes states that you never know what’s really going on in Chinatown. He could not have been more right.
Gittes, portrayed superbly by Jack Nicholson, takes on many of the qualities of the archetypal hardboiled detective. He appears as a cross between Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, channelling the former’s witty and sarcastic comments while coupling them with the latter’s demeanor and work ethic.
One of the great qualities screenwriter Robert Towne withheld in creating this character was a sense of invincibility. Many of the hardboiled detective novels portray unrealistic heroes, sometimes antiheroes, who appear invulnerable to everything. Gittes is beaten, cut and knocked unconscious at various points in the film. He also shows he has a heart, which is uncommon with most heroes of this genre. It is through these scenes of vulnerability and sentimentality that we see Gittes appear human and more believable.
Jack Nicholson is incredible in this role. He is not so over the top as he has been in his later roles (let me refer you to Mars Attacks! and Anger Management). He seems quite downplayed, but the character does have a short temper at times. Fortunately, in those moments the extravagant Nicholson we all know and love does show his face. It works though and adds to the character, so who can complain? His delivery of the smart ass remarks is amazing. I laughed every time he threw some lines into another character’s face. I sat there wishing I could use that dialogue – it was classic.
Faye Dunaway, as Evelyn Mulwray, is truly great. She somewhat takes on the characteristics of the femme fatale role in this story. Getting the detective into danger, tempting him in various ways, and holding back information.
At the same time she cares about the people around her, which moves her away from this archetype. She is likable and the screenwriter, Towne, talked of her being selfless. I would not go that far, but she sort of sets herself apart from most of the femme fatale or even the black widow characteristics. Dunaway’s presentation of the slow unraveling of her character is wonderful. She is able to gradually reveal information about her character with a sense of mastery. Evelyn’s motives, like most of the other characters, are not readily available, leaving us suspicious of everyone. Pulling off this sort of role with so many elements involved can be difficult, but Dunaway did it with ease.
Director Roman Polanski had much to do with how the characters were able to reveal their sentimental sides. He used many close-up shots of the actors, which creates an extremely intimate sensation between the character/actor and viewer. Even the smallest facial twitch is noticed, and leaves us with ideas about what is really going on in the character’s head. Polanski also used long takes in the film. There is obviously no editing in these scenes, and the realness of the moment comes through beautifully. This is where acting is seen at its best.
This film has a slightly gritty feel to it. The actors are here to act, not to “look good.” Gittes has a bandage on his nose for half the film, showing that this movie is not about glamour. This element adds to that gritty impression. Nicholson had to set aside whatever ideas of attractiveness he may have had, and just worry about playing the character rather than looking the part. Nicholson shows us how he got into the acting business, and why he is still around today.
All in all, this film was phenomenal. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Unfortunately, It only won best screenplay, but that still has to count for something. With great acting, characters, directing, writing, and an apparent, yet subtle, soundtrack, this film is sure to be a classic for many generations.
Rating: 4½ out of 5 Nose Stitches.