A nearly flawless example of movie composition, with close examination revealing how carefully it was put together. For those who take a less studious and more visceral approach to movie viewing, it's also worth noting that Chinatown is a superior thriller - one that will keep viewers involved and "in the moment" until the final, mournful scene has come to a conclusion.
But the greatness of Chinatown, unappreciated by my adolescent self, lies not in its cynical view of the California dream (that's too easy) but in its fatalistic, even tragic conception of America and indeed of human nature.
A bit abstract, though gorgeously shot (by John Alonzo) and cleverly plotted (by Robert Towne), Polanski's film suggests that the rules of the game are written in some strange, untranslatable language, and that everyone's an alien and, ultimately, a victim.
Jessica WinterVillage Voice
In 1974 a director, a screenwriter, and a producer (Robert Evans, who for once deserves a few of the plaudits he's apportioned himself) could decide to beat a genre senseless and then dump it in the wilds of Greek tragedy. [Review of August 8, 2003 re-release]
Vincent CanbyThe New York Times
Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirites-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Big Sleep." Others may not be as finicky. [21 June 1974]
Gene SiskelChicago Tribune
As much as I admire the work of both (Roman) Polanski and (Jack) Nicholson, I found Chinatown tedious from beginning to just before the end. [15 July 1974]