Edgar Cochran’s review published on Letterboxd:
Chinatown is the last film that master Roman Polanski filmed in the U.S., a fact that would surely mean he would divide audiences once more with his upcoming French thriller Le Locataire (1976), the last chapter of the loose trilogy concerning the horrors faced by apartment duelers. More than being one of the most brilliant, brutal, realistic and undeniably stylish crime films ever made in cinema history, it is an intentional direct homage to the film-noir genre that was the filmmaking branch originator of several masterpieces mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 40's and 50's. This is the first time Polanski attempts to direct a strictly crime film with no surrealistic elements and psychological horror involved, which is a very daring ambition to achieve. Besides directing one of the best films of the year, Chinatown is a masterpiece which title is able to speak for itself thanks to its originality and powerful brilliance, becoming a timeless work of art that has effectively stood the test of time.
Private detective J.J. Gittes is about to unravel a giant and complex conspiracy web full of violence, lies, deceit, murder, municipal corruption and deceptions throughout related to the water supply when a woman who is pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the city's water supply system builder named Hollis, hires him under the suspicion of Hollis having an affair. Later on, the real Evelyn Mulwray appears in Gittes' office threatening him to sue him if he doesn't drop the case, but when Mr. Mulwray is found dead, he refuses to drop it and inevitably gets deeper into an endless plot of madness. The film received 11 Academy Award nominations for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound, Best Director and Best Picture, winning only the first award.
The sole brilliance of Chinatown is naturally originated from the extraordinarily developed screenplay by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, and the shocking power of the several unparalleled performances this film proudly possesses. What the direction achieved is to make the story relentless and memorable. Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson's character is not very different from the usual cold-blooded characters he has portrayed throughout his filmic career, consequently giving away what would be his best leading performance if it wouldn't be because of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Thanks to the tone of his voice, his scary and cold facial expressions and his overall reactions, the private detective J.J. Gittes gains cinematic life and a very strong presence when being on screen, making his one-liners as sarcastic as possible and transforming a lame joke into a hilarious one thanks to the way he tells it. Faye Dunaway plays a physically weak, yet morally strong woman that is directly affected by the unstoppable outcomes of the surrounding events, finding partial comfort and protection through Gittes, but at the same time not knowing how and when should she confess several truths she hides under her persona or not.
The rest of the characters play the role of a motor for the plot's unexpected and mysterious development. Polanski had in mind both the darkness of a classic film-noir and what a new and more modern audience of the 70's demanded. The result is a brilliant crime film with enough character development and an adequate pace so it can provide much more than just two hours of plain entertainment, excluding the opening and the closing credits. Therefore, it isn't shy at portraying neither graphic violence nor sexual content, including its beautifully stereotypical cliches.
I want to be free at expressing my amazement concerning the technical aspects. The cinematography, the sound and the editing are extraordinary; they actually play a very particular role at strengthening the whole style and power of Chinatown. No matter how small the city is, it actually feels like if the streets and the very water supply system were living characters, when they actually are inert. The aforementioned details are deliciously sweetened by a good soundtrack and a classic musical theme.
Chinatown goes beyond the definition of its own genre. It is a merciless and relentless brilliant masterwork and one of the best definitions of cinema available, without exaggerating. With unforgettable quotes, a hard-to-top story and definitely an extraordinary ending, a scene that caused controversy for some people and disappointment for others, it is a film that has surpassed the expectations of even the actuality audience. In case you cannot see the brilliance of the film or are not interested in seeing it, believe me when I say that you're dumber than you think I think you are.