Roman Polanski’s beautifully dark, Chinatown, is an indelible modern classic, and supports a near perfect screenplay by Robert Towne. The script (for which he won the “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar) is made all the more harrowing and bleak on film by a recently tormented Polanski.
This early Twentieth Century drama surrounds private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is primarily known as a “marital separation” expert. He is called upon by a woman who presents herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) who asks him to obtain photographic proof of her husband’s infidelity. He draws up the contract, charges the “usual rate” and sets to work. He follows Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) for a number of days, tracking his every move, until he is able to capture several photographs of him affectionately eating breakfast with a young woman. These scandalous accusations immediately make their way to print, as Mr. Mulwray is the Chief Engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes, ego fully inflated, returns to his office to find the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) waiting for him; lawsuit in hand. Stunned by the realization that he has been conned by a fake Evelyn Mulwray, he is consumed with finding out why. A day later, Hollis Mulwray is found dead (drowned) in a city reservoir. Gittes quickly realizes the serious nature of his situation.
Through plot twists, interrogations and weeks of foot work, Gittes is able to piece together a scandal the likes of which Los Angeles has never seen. As a former police detective in Chinatown, he is accustomed to fighting dirty, but he is ill-prepared for an investigation of this magnitude. Gittes must endeavor against a slew of law enforcement officials (both corrupt and honest), murderous hired thugs and a mountain of political influence. True to noir stylings, he finds a strong female love interest in Mrs. Mulwray, and also wrestles with putting her interests ahead of his own. He uncovers a plot by Mulwray’s malevolent ex-business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston), which leads him to water-starved farms in eastern California. This simply adds to the inturgue – another piece of the ever expanding puzzle that Gittes must assemble to resolve this ever-expanding crime. Solving this case will only bring him more torment and heartbreak, as is so oftentimes the result when an individual goes up against corporate and political greed.
Nicholson’s impressive portrayal of J.J. Gittes is unforgettable. He is a totally ruthless figure that is full of sarcastic wit and bottled aggression. Nicholson is able to use trademark quality of restrained madness to bring life to this early 20’s character. His ability to lash out at those standing in his way, and to quietly sit-back and watch others falter [particularly ex-partner, Detective Escobar (Perry Lopez)] make him an absolutely fascinating character to watch. Where this film truly shines, however, is the impeccable screenplay. Based on the real-life California Water Wars, Towne is able to write a beautifully wandering, yet gripping, crime thriller. Fraught with complex twists and plenty of double crossing, Towne is able to fit together a narrative puzzle that the audience cannot entirely see until the bitter end. Polanski’s skillful direction, shot variation and lighting choices really give this story a bleakly-mysterious air. He was able to take Towne’s masterful script and bring it fantastically to life. Nodding at classic noir stylings of the 40’s and 50’s, he uses heavy shadowing and suspense-building cuts that leave the audience on-edge. Polanski’s direction seems to thrive in this darkness; even intertwining itself with it. While constantly zig-zagging his way through the investigation, even Gittes seems to get lost in the dark. There isn’t a single vice or crime Gittes isn’t privy to during his torment – certainly a remnant of Polanski’s sudden loss of his second wife and unborn child at the hands of the Manson “family”. Chinatown takes its audience on a dark and twisted journey, and what would otherwise be a standard historical drama, leaves the audience reeling.