Chinatown (1974, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway)

Even the greatest films in the world tend to age ungraciously, carbon-dated by outmoded acting styles, antiquated production practices, or film stocks whose color saturation (or lack of same) firmly places a movie in the distant past. Then there’s Chinatown, 43 years after it’s release, Roman Polanski’s elegant film noir remains as vital now as it was in 1974 — and as about as close to perfect as any movie ever gets.

Sun-Drenched Noir Makes for Rare Masterpiece

Jack Nicholson gives one of his finest performances — and one that puts his hollow Oscar-winning performances in Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets to shame — as private eye J.J. Gittes. It’s 1937 and Los Angeles is grappling both with the Great Depression and drought. Jake Gittes is an ex-cop turned private eye who specializes in getting the goods on cheating spouses. Gittes is hired to tail water department official Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) for what looks like a routine adultery case, but when Mulwray drowns, Gittes finds himself drawn into civic scandal, dysfunctional family strife, and murder. Though manhandled both by water department goons (including one played by Polanski himself — “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. You know what happens to nosy fellows?”) and angry farmers, Gittes stubbornly refuses to give up his investigation, even with his life on the line. Gittes suspects foul play by Mulwray’s former business partner and father-in-law Noah Cross (John Huston) and he’s falling in love with Cross’ daughter and Mulwray’s widow, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway).


Chinatown is that rare instance when everything comes together and the end result, without hyperbole, can be described as a masterpiece. Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script takes the arcane — but very real — history of Los Angeles water wars and re-imagines it as a tragedy with the resonance of King Lear. Though convoluted, Towne’s story unravels effortlessly, revealing, at last, the horror at its center. As the three central characters, Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston perform flawlessly, Huston; in particular, seeming to revel in playing a man who is the perfect embodiment of evil. Chinatown may be a noir, but John A. Alonzo’s stunning cinematography makes the most of sun-drenched California vistas (a strategy employed to similar effect more recently in L.A. Confidential). Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, exquisite period costumes by Anthea Sylbert, and opulent production design by Richard Sylbert provide atmospheric contributions to the film’s high style. Orchestrating it all is Polanski. Returning to Los Angeles for the first time since that city’s dark mythos claimed his own wife, Polanski presents L.A. as a gorgeous place with a deadly cancer eating at its core.

USA / 1974

Running Time: 131 minutes
Rating: R
Genres: Classic, Drama, Mystery, Noir, Suspense

Director: Roman Polanski

Jack Nicholson
Faye Dunaway
John Huston
Perry Lopez
John Hillerman
Diane Ladd
Burt Young
Darrell Zwerling
Bruce Glover
Roy Jenson
Dick Balcalyan
Joe Mantell
James Hong
Noble Willingham