AuteurTheory’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm not convinced of Chinatown's masterpiece status. I think it might have been Howard Hawks who defined a great movie as having at least three good scenes and no bad ones. The last time I saw this, over ten years ago, I thought there were only two good scenes: Polanski's cameo, and the iconic ending. I suppose you could count the barber shop scene, but it's very short and doesn't have a lot of significance. Or when Jake finally understands the plot twist, but that's not exactly a scene I look forward to.
A decade later I'm revisiting it, on Blu Ray for the first time. Maybe that will make a difference. I actually got the Blu Ray specifically because David Fincher does a commentary track. I thought maybe he could convince me why this movie is supposedly so great. But before I check that out, I need a refresher on the movie itself.
There's no denying this is a masterful production of details; from the score to the cinematography to the acting and direction, there's a classiness to every facet- much like The Godfather.
My catchphrase is "plot doesn't matter", but Chinatown and The Godfather (two movies that I think invite comparison) are both plot-driven movies. Being the 1970s, there is more character development than a modern film, but for the most part scenes happen to propel the plot forward. The difference is the characters and plot in The Godfather are consistently more engaging. In Chinatown, we follow one man (Jack Nicholson) in a mostly futile, solitary journey to nowhere. By the end of The Godfather, all of the characters have been through significant dramatic arcs. They're different people by the end, because the events of the movie have molded and shaped them that way. I'm not sure Chinatown's screenplay allows that to happen here. Chinatown is a sort of in depth examination of film noir, so perhaps looking for Jake's spiritual journey is barking up the wrong tree.
Alright, I can talk and talk but when it comes down to it there's one problem I have: the water. The water conspiracy wasn't interesting. It all came together deftly in the third act, but the water is never something that I care about while watching. That climactic finale is intense, masterful. This is despite how uninteresting the water subplot is, not because of it. Luckily the perverse other subplot is more impactful.
But if we're talking about 1970s California neo-noir, I think Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye is the superior film. Controversial, I know.
I have to add another good scene to the list: Nicholson's first encounter with the legendary John Huston. A meeting of two great actors at their best. But have you noticed that no matter what the movie is, John Huston always seems to have manservants around??
I enjoyed it more than last time, and that third act really is tight. Is it Polanski's masterpiece? I haven't seen all his movies, but give me Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby any day. If I had to watch a 70s movie where we follow Jack Nicholson around in every scene, I would go for Five Easy Pieces, or even The Passenger, but I think it is starting to grow on me.