Director Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) arguably perfected the noir-mystery genre with his 1974 film, “Chinatown”. The film stars Jack Nicholson (The Departed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Faye Dunaway (Network, Bonnie & Clyde), John Huston (director of The Asphalt Jungle) and follows a Los Angeles private eye (Nicholson) as he begins to unravel a mystery involving corruption within the department of water & power.
As far as I am concerned, Polanski is the king of unraveling mysteries on-screen. His patience, camera movement, and outlook on cinema itself is a truly astounding thing to experience. He is quoted as saying, “cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.” And with many of his films, he does just that. With films such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” he brings you into this woman’s world as it becomes increasingly manipulative and disturbing; in “The Pianist,” you follow a Jewish citizen as he struggles to survive the destruction of his city during World War II; and in “Chinatown,” you are swept into a world of noir and mystery as Polanski slowly and satisfyingly unravels a powerful story. When I speak of Polanski’s patience, “Chinatown” is a perfect example to show this quality. There is a scene in particular where Nicholson’s character sits in a secretary’s office and waits to speak to her boss. It shows Nicholson sitting and annoying the secretary, humming a song in his head, having a smoke, hearing people outside the door scratching off the name of a former employer. There are many scenes like this that give it a very real quality. “Chinatown” isn’t an action movie and Polanski knows this, he takes his time with scenes to let us really take in this world and become more involved with it.
The film follows Jack Nicholson literally every step of the way, with this, we feel as if we are Jack’s partner investigating the case as well. We see and learn everything as the character does. This is something that has been far lost in the so-called “mysteries” of our time such as “Eagle Eye”. For some reason, there has been a feel that mysteries must also be action or horror movies. The films that have stuck to a more “Chinatown” feel are films such as “Memento,” “Brick,” or even Polanski’s recent “The Ghost Writer.” These films shine because by following the main character through every scene of the film, it becomes more realistic, tense, and emotional to the audience. You feel as if you are apart of the story itself. I believe that “Chinatown” perfected this type of mystery-noir, having followed other such as “The Big Sleep” or “Maltese Falcon.”
I believe that if “Chinatown” had been released just one year earlier, not having to contend with “The Godfather Part II,” it would have cleaned up at awards season. It was nominated for 11 Oscars (including Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Picture), but only walked away with Best Original Screenplay. It always seems like what come to be the classic films of our time were never given their due when it came to awards. But, as I said before, this was greatly due to “The Godfather” sequel cleaning up the awards in 1974, rightfully so.
If you haven’t already seen “Chinatown” multiple times, I highly recommend checking it out. It currently stands at #6 as one of my all-time favorite films, and shockingly high at #59 on IMDb’s Top 250. The performances are top-notch, the writing is spectacular, and it features a fantastic director at his best. Being that this was made in 1974 and that it was a noir mystery, I would usually love to see it in black & white, but it is shot so beautifully that I would have not taken it any other way but in color. To see fantastic contrast between color and B&W noir mystery, check out the aformentioned “Memento” as well.
Runtime: 130 minutes