1 Year, 100 Movies: #21 Chinatown (1974)

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For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

Roman Polansksi’s neo-noir “Chinatown” updates the style that was born in the 1940s. It pays homage, but also, like any great genre film, pushes the accepted boundaries for the genre. Polanski destroys the classic film noir characters with such loving care that we see this more as a maturation of a genre than its deconstruction. He even casts John Huston, who is arguably the father of film noir as we know it, as Noah Cross, our maleficent antagonist. Polanski then takes it one step further and casts himself as a knife-wielding lackey. Though “Chinatown” has a lot of emphasis placed on tone and style, Polanski gives us a more compelling mystery than those offered in either “The Maltese Falcon” or “Double Indemnity.” He also develops the stiff and emotionless detective, and makes him more vulnerable, and more compelling.

Onto the film- Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he’s on a job trying to out Hollis Mulwray’s (Darrell Zwerling) affair, but it soon turns out that there’s a much deeper mystery. Mulwray works for the Los Angeles water department and in the midst of a drought someone’s dumping water from the reservoir into the ocean. It seems that Gittes is being used to get to Mulwary, so he decides to look into the matter further and heads to City Hall. When Mulwray is found dead, Gittes decides that there is something to the case beyond marital problems and water rights issues. He heads back to the reservoir, and receives one of cinema’s most memorable injuries. Fred MacMurray, as Walter Neff (Double Indemnity), gets shot in the chest, but he still looks great. Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), gets drugged and beaten up, but hardly a hair seems out of place. Our Jake Gittes has his nostril split by a thug and must wear a bandage on his nose for the rest of the film. It’s funny, endearing and a constant reminder of the pain inflicted in this one moment. Our main character can bleed. He can be injured. So for the rest of the film, we believe that any threat to his safety is real.

Gitties meets with Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), to discuss their relationship, and creates a bond with her. They start a relationship, but Gitties can’t fully trust her. We see he may be making the same mistakes all over again that he had in his previous job as a police officer in Chinatown. Gitties realizes that Evelyn has been hiding the other woman, Katherine (Belinda Palmer)- you will need to watch the film to find out who she really is- (mind blown) – and that they are leaving town. This is one of the greatest moments in film. Gittes’ misguided frustration, fear for himself, and misunderstanding of the moment leads to his violent outburst. This violence makes him seem smaller and makes it all the more dramatic when Evelyn reveals the truth about Katherine. As he did with the detective, we realize that Polanski has turned the femme fatale character upside down.

The mystery about water rights and the story of an incestuous father weave together in the final moments, and lead Gittes once again back to Chinatown. “Chinatown” is stark and desolate in its final moments. The only consolation is that we saw it coming. Perhaps Gittes will finally learn his lesson and not make the same mistake a third time. Both Dunaway and Nicholson are pure perfection in their roles. The way they can remake themselves into their characters is amazing. Their characters are so impressively complex and emotionally engaging.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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