Roman Polanski’s 1973 film Chinatown contains all the elements of a classic noir. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the plot features a booze swilling detective, a mysterious femme fatale, murder, and sexual intrigue. The movie not only deftly honors the genre, but has also earned its place as a classic. The focus on a lone character and multi-layered criminal plotting in particular hearken back to an older genre.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective who has a gift for catching cheating spouses. When hired by a wealthy woman to surveil her husband and uncover his adultery, his investigation brings him into a conspiracy far more sordid. A whodunit mystery ensues, as the normally unflappable Gittes finds himself at the mercy of mysterious forces and struggles to make sense of the situation. However, as he unravels the mystery he encounters a greater danger that exceeds his worst fears.
Beautifully written and executed, Chinatown is a slow-burn noir film on par with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Even its setting in 1930s LA frames the story in a familiar environment for detective movies, and the deeply layered plot requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate the twisted web being woven. The layered story adds to the tension and immersion as the viewer strives to untangle the unfolding plot lines.
The audience finds themselves in the same state of confused suspense as Gittes, facts and clues given only when he uncovers them. Gittes is in every scene, which gives the audience an experience that mirrors his own, which adds to the sense of intrigue. This is a classic noir technique, demonstrated effectively in the more lighthearted The Big Lebowski. True to suspense practice, some scenes build tension that proves unfounded, while others result in violence or betrayal.
Underlying the plot is a darker story of loneliness and vulnerability to more powerful forces. As one character asks of Gittes, “Are you alone?”, to which he replies, “Isn’t everyone?”. A significant portion of the scenes are him alone, trying to unravel the mystery. Those scenes involving others usually involve one party lying to another, with the only instance of intimacy later being revealed as part of a greater deception. To add insult to injury, his adversary never even pronounces his name correctly.
The general portrayal of Gittes’ world is a pessimistic one at best. He is alone in an unforgiving city and is surrounded by cunning, deadly opponents that try to manipulate him and everyone else. This sense of helplessness is made clear again and again throughout the film. Nicholson’s character is often showed alone in wide streets or expansive farmland, and his interactions with most characters are kept short and curt. In the end, Gittes is only a small time private eye. No matter how clever he is nor how hard he tries, he cannot overcome the forces opposing him. In typical noir style, he is forced to reconcile with his own insignificance and inability to stop more influential entities.
Jack Nicholson delivers a predictably stellar performance, accompanied by femme fatale Faye Dunaway and John Huston, at home in the noir genre having written and directed The Maltese Falcon. Nicholson’s brooding character is deftly portrayed as the savvy detective, although his vulnerability is addressed to keep the story real and unpredictable.
The cinematography mimics the style of previous noir films, as does the plot structure and dialogue. Characters are portrayed carefully in certain lights before later being flipped and revealed as manipulating others. However, the decades separating Chinatown from its predecessors resulted in innumerable advances in technique and technology that give Chinatown a more modern flair. The presentation of the movie in color is but one obvious example. However, several night scenes are conspicuously devoid of color and hearken back to an earlier era.
Unhindered by the rudimentary tools available in the ‘30s, Chinatown portrays a familiar style with a more advanced hand. Skilled acting, cinematography, writing, and direction produce a pillar in noir film, despite coming 40 years after the genre’s heyday.