Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

This stone-cold classic from Roman Polanski screened as part of the Irish Film Institute’s High Anxiety Season, which I’ve already blogged about. Jack Nicholson stars as Private Eye Jake Giddes; an ex-cop who is asked to investigate a philandering husband, but soon finds himself out of his depth in a tale of missing water, a missing engineer and some high-level corruption at the L.A. County Water Board.

Giddes is contracted by Mrs Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband, County Engineer Hollis Mulwray, as she suspects him of having an affair. After photographing the alleged philanderer with a young lady, the story gets leaked to the papers and the engineer suddenly goes missing. In the first of many plot twists, we learn that Giddes was duped when the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up, unhappy that the story is all over the city, and threatens to sue Giddes. When Mr Mulwray later turns up dead, Giddes finds himself drawn into a complex story of deceit, incest and murder, all strangely connected to the County’s disappearing water supply.

Chinatown’s modern Noir nods its hat to like-minded American movies of the 40s and 50s, while also being a gutsy, dark, tough take on the genre.  Nicholson looks like he’s relishing every moment of tough talkin’ Giddes’ screen time, and Dunaway is a breathtaking presence as the multi-layered, oblique Evelyn Mulwray. Giddes falls neatly into the conflicted anti-hero stance, not only of classic Noir films, but of 1970s American Cinema generally, which makes this a perfect addition to the Season. The film also stars veteran film director John Huston as one-time County Water Board Manager and Evelyn’s fearsome father,Noah Cross, and Polanski himself makes a memorable appearance as a knife-wielding henchman.

Written by Robert Towne (a close friend of Nicholson’s, for whom he wrote the part of Giddes) as an homage to the hard-boiled Private Eye fiction of the 1940s, and as a love letter to Los Angeles, the screenplay deservedly won an Oscar. It is ripe with immensely quotable and funny lines, and boasts a typically complicated Noir storyline that doesn’t dump us down too many blind alleys.  But it was Polanski who changed the ending from the original, making it unexpectedly dark and bleak, to perhaps match the atmosphere of the times. The last line of the movie’s dialogue, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” has also rightly entered the pantheon of famous last movie lines. A classic must-see film from Hollywood’s last Golden Age.

The High Anxiety Season continues at the IFI until June 26th.


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