“Can you believe it? We’re in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.”
I’ve put off writing about Chinatown for a couple of days now. Roman Polanski’s neo-noir mystery, often hailed as a masterpiece, was a film I enjoyed very much; I just haven’t been passionate enough about it to sit down and start writing. I’ve always ascribed to the notion that it’s easier to talk about a film’s mistakes, or simply to exaggerate them, than to point out why a film succeeds. In a sense, Chinatown is a perfect film structurally, and there aren’t many outward flaws. It’s not going to sit among my list of favorites, but I certainly enjoyed it, and I think the most admirable thing about the film is its textbook adherence to genre elements and its engaging, finely crafted story structure.
Chinatown follows the story of J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an L.A. private investigator hired by the wealthy and mysterious Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s infidelity. The story grows more dynamic than it appears, however, when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) reveals that Gittes was hired by an imposter. Through this investigation, Gittes uncovers nefarious dealings between the city’s water distributors with thousands of gallons of city water being wasted amidst a drought. Gittes is soon caught in a web of deceit and dishonesty where he must connect the dots between people and events to find the truth.
The story of Chinatown is clearly its most noteworthy element. The film’s screenplay has been marked as a masterpiece of cinematic narrative, and it’s a work that’s studied in film schools across the country. When you write a mystery such as this one, it’s important that plot elements are arranged in the proper way at the proper time to take the viewer through the most engaging journey of uncovering information. Struggling noir films will often reveal too little or too much information in the first half, making for a tedious or a terribly boring story. Chinatown seems to find the perfect proportions of dropping information to keep its audience invested. It’s always fun as a viewer to feel like you’re just about to figure out where things are going, but you’re not quite there yet. Chinatown is smooth and easy to follow, but it’s surprising and dynamic enough to keep you in this sweet spot. I’d love to read over the script sometime just to study its structure.
While the story hits its mark wonderfully, I also think Chinatown has a lot of fun with its presentation. I think the role of Jake Gittes was wonderfully cast as Jack Nicholson. Most actors wouldn’t be able to capture the humorous cynicism of the character quite how Nicholson does. The film also seems to comment on its own genre, playing with the notion of the suave noir hero by instead presenting a jaded, wise-cracking protagonist with a band-aid on his nose for most of the movie. This sort of thing is what I really enjoy about neo-noir, when a film can take itself less seriously for a lighter, more enjoyable experience. It’s a fun compromise between the gritty, often dull mystery of the classic noir film and the more playful, exciting innovations of the New Hollywood era.
Maybe I still don’t understand the overwhelming acclaim this film has garnered, but it’s definitely a fun time and a movie that I really enjoyed. Perhaps I would have liked something a little more unique, and it’s definitely possible that I’m discounting how innovative and astounding this film was upon release and comparing it unfairly to modern standards, but I’m still not convinced that Chinatown is the greatest film of its kind. It may be the model for the neo-noir film, but it’s not the best neo-noir film in my view. Sometimes a film can seem to do everything right, but it doesn’t mean much if the choices the film makes aren’t interesting and exciting; this is where Chinatown is lacking for me.
Despite its occasional blandness, Chinatown is still a movie with which I had a great experience. Its sharp, clever story sheds the layers of its mystery at a brilliant pace, and with great performances and fun neo-noir elements, you really can’t go wrong with Chinatown.
Films Left to Watch: 904