Jake Gittes: Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.
JJ “Jack” Gittes had it right with Chinatown. This movie is all about the finesse. The writing is smart and, at opportune moments, quite amusing in a way only a detective flick can be. That is to say the quips come as one-liners that only make sense in context of the movie and can’t be commented on in the same way as Stephen Wright’s can like “The problem with the gene pool is that there’s no lifeguard” or just watch this hilarious video…then come back. I’ll wait. Promise.
Now after watching that, you should be in a pretty close the right frame of mind for this movie. Like Steven Wright, Chinatown is depressing but pure genius and brimming with unexpected twists. Unlike Steven Wright, it’s not funny.
The movie takes place in 1930’s LA and follows the escapades of the brash and sarcastic Private Investigator JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) as he finds answers to a murder of a high-ranking Department of Water official and stumbles upon a conspiracy that’s bigger than he is. I’m not one to spoil a movie even if it is 36 years old. If you want to find the plot, it’s on the Infotron. But to those who want to remain unspoiled, I will say that within the first 25 minutes the movie takes its first unexpected twist that sends it hurtling down a direction that you don’t see coming…and it gets darker and darker until the final credits roll. You come to know about Noah Cross, one of the most detestable villains in movie history. It’s not until the last minutes that you fully understand how evil of a person Noah Cross really is/was…no, that won’t spoil you.
Are there more shocking movies out there today? Absolutely. Are there movies with better twists? Undoubtedly. But for 1974, Chinatown’s darkness would be unlike anything they would’ve seen at the time. It’s a movie plot that would fit right in the last golden era of cinema of the late 90’s. It was a movie ahead of its time.
Those going in expecting Chinatown to play a primary role as I had been thinking will be disappointed. Chinatown serves more as a character development device to establish JJ Gittes history and how he came to be the person he is in the movie. That is to say that Chinatown in the 30’s was so mixed up with rival gangs that the police didn’t know who was on the good side and who wasn’t. Because of this, they stayed out of the mess all together. This is the same as the movie plot. You never know exactly who’s good and who’s bad in the story but JJ Gettes wants to get to the bottom of the mess.
John Huston’s role as Noah Cross (Catholic undertones here? Noah’s Ark, the flood, and his belief he is better than Jesus) should be necessary viewing for any actor wanting to understand what subtle and conniving villainy should look like. And Faye Dunaway (as widower Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray) is complex, strong and fragile all at the same time.
The one fault is the movie lags in parts. Yet, this might be a testament to the shortening attention spans of our generation (and future generations) expecting a shock or surprise at every turn. The surprises do come and are worth the wait. And the scenes with Noah Cross and the ending is worth the slow ride (hit it Foghat!).
Chinatown does deserve to be in the wheelhouse of the great detective movies out there and appropriately placed in the upper pantheon of superb movies.
8 Roman Polanski knife cuts out of 10