3 January 2005 | bob the moo
A very classy, consistently engaging and dark detective story
Jake Gittes is a former cop turned private detective. When he is contracted by a Mrs Mulwray to find out if her husband is having an affair, he takes to trailing Water Company Executive Hollis Mulwray. Mulwray appears to only have water and a dry riverbed on his mind but eventually they catch him with a young woman, although almost immediately the news gets leaked to the papers and Mulwray goes missing, only to turn up dead. At this point the real Mrs Mulwray comes to Gittes threatening to sue him for his involvement and Jake realises that he had been set up to set up the Mulwrays. He continues his investigation into the murder only to find a conspiracy involving thousands of gallons of water being wasted during a drought and the mysterious presence of Mrs Mulwray's father, Noah Cross.
As a fan of film noir and tough detective movies, I am too often put off by modern entries into the genre that try to replace atmosphere and intelligence by just having nudity and swearing; the genre managed atmosphere without these in the forties and fifties but yet modern films seem to rely on them. With Chinatown however, everything works well as a homage to the best years of the genre and, as such, is very well set in the period and is of suitable presentation even if the material and tone is darker and harder than would have been allowed years ago. This is not to say it is just a copy and paste from better films because it isn't and indeed stands out as one of the best detective noirs I have seen in ages. The plot is always going to be the most important thing and it gets it spot on throughout, doing the proper thing of starting with a simple story and continually building it more and more complex as it goes. Unlike some other "classics" of the genre, Chinatown manages to do this without ever losing the audience and I found the plot to be both rewardingly complex but yet still very easy to follow.
Needless to say, things are very dark and the script is convincingly dark and miserable, leading to an ending that is as depressing as I've seen not so much in what actually happens but also in the wider implications for the characters that the credits prevent us from seeing. Director Polanski does a great job of putting this story in a lush setting that produces a real strong sense of period but also manages to always be showing us the darkness coming through subtly throughout the movie. Of course it helps that he also has a great cast to work with. Jack Nicholson is iconic in this role and, if I had to pick one film to act as an introduction to Nicholson then it would be this one. He is tough yet damaged, upright but seedy and he brings out his complex character well. Dunaway has less screen time but is just as impressive with a similarly dark role. Huston adds class and manages to ooze menace while also coming across as a harmless old man. The support cast are all fine but really the film belongs to these three, with Nicholson being the stand out role.
Overall this is a very classy film that has stood up very well to become a well-deserved classic. The story is complex, mysterious yet simple to follow; it is dark and seedy without relying on swearing or nudity to set the atmosphere. The direction is great, with a real atmosphere and sense of time and place that is matched by a great collection of performances delivering a great script.