Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You know the expression, let sleeping dogs lie? You're better off not knowing.” - J.J. “Jake” Gittes
Is there any better encapsulation of Chinatown than this line? It is a rather innocuous line, one said to who Jake believes to be the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), yet it means so much more in the greater context. This is a conspiracy film at its heart, one where Jake is pitted up against incredible forces who hope to hoodwink the public in order to line their own pockets. They may already be rich and powerful, but this cynically honest film knows these men would never turn down a chance to become even richer and even more powerful. Yet, Jake takes on this world anyway. He is, largely, happy. Sure, he does not think much of having to reveal cheating spouses for hire, but he will defend his position anyways. It is an honest job, one that exposes lies and forces those who are guilty to face the light. Thus, when his tracking of Hollis leads him to even bigger things - corruption that does not concern martial bonds - of couse he cannot help but snoop.
There are many excellent features to Robert Towne’s screenplay. It is, after all, often cited as one of the finest ever written and is a touchstone of any film school education. However, to be a dead horse, the way in which Towne builds out the plot and the characters - often simultaneously - is just a sight to behold. Nimbly establishing everything, putting the major players in their spot, and often leaning on “show don’t tell” in order to piece together clues, the film flows beautifully. It is the very definition of a “tightly written” film, constantly setting something up and then circling back to knock it down later. Every line, every scene, and every character is crucial, adding into the fabric of the film, whether their contribution is to the plot, themes, or character arcs. It is a marvel to behold. Roman Polanski directs the hell out of it, delivering a tremendously paced work that feeds off of Towne’s phenomenal script, delivering a suspenseful and richly detailed film.
Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are both excellent, having the most success in mining Towne’s dialogue and characterization for those small, finite details. Both bring their characters to life, revealing the inner turmoil they have without saying a word. Evelyn’s (Dunaway) pain and secrets have written all over Dunaway’s face, pouring out of her as she frantically tries to tell Jake what is going on and getting nowhere with her explanations. Her pained delivery and the sadness in her eyes are something that are barely perceptible, but are hidden within her demeanor. Towne calls attention to this as she and Nicholson share a scene, with Jake calling out the “imperfection” in her eye. As with everything in this script, it hints at some much larger, subtly revealing to the audience the fractures within Evelyn.
One can see the same character work in Jake, particularly as it relates to class. This is a film about the rich elites of Los Angeles who neglect the farmers and exploit those “beneath” them, all while those in the town are powerless to change anything. It is encapsulated in that iconic final line, one that hints at this hidden but unalterable force. Yet, Jake fights this power. He is ill-equipped to move in their world, let alone the world of powerful men like Noah Cross (John Huston). Jake’s disgust over seeing the head still on his fish is written all over Nicholson’s face, all while Noah flaunts his “classy” choice in food presentation. The repeated discussions between Jake and Evelyn where he nearly swears, but catches himself is a fantastic touch that, similarly, hits on this distinction within Jake. There is a hint of insecurity within him as he defends his profession early in the film, something that escapes in these moments. A lot of Jake knows that he is not the upper-class characters is working around, but he wants to look and act the part. His swearing being one area where he tries to improve, aiming to retain a dignified and refined demeanor around someone who was born into this powerful world. However, as with corruption and greed, there are some things that cannot change. Jake is a foul-mouthed private detective (a perfect job for a man on the outside, as he is even on the outside of his profession) and is, thus, powerless to alter or bring to light things that truly matter.
Even if he could, Jake is shown by Chinatown to not be the man for this task. His frequent discussions about his career as a Chinatown cop highlights his struggle against power to change things, only to run into brick walls. His insistence is admirable, but his ignorance is not. Towne highlights this quality via the offensive “Chinamen” joke, enthusiastically told by Jake to his co-detectives while, unbeknownst to him, a disgusted Evelyn looks on from his office. Not only is the joke incredibly racist, but Evelyn appears to be sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese, having a few in her employ. Given the era, there may be a “right time” for this joke, but this is not that time. The same is found in his investigation. Constantly, he turns to LA detective Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) as a confidant, unaware that Escobar seemingly works hand-in-hand with Cross. At the least, he is willing to sweep aside some dirt to keep the status quo. Nonetheless, Jake comes to him with all of his great discoveries about the case and even hand delivers them Evelyn, sealing her fate and unintentionally damning the city along with her.
Though a detective for many years, Jake’s experience in Chinatown is one of destroyed innocence. There is no naivety for Jake when it comes to moral corruption within marriages, but he seems to believe the world can be put right and the truth can be exposed. This is slowly, but surely, rooted out of him. The final pull coming in that final scene, proving that truth does not prevail. Overwhelmingly, Chinatown explores this theme of “innocence destroyed” via Evelyn’s incestuous history with her father, Noah Cross, and via the terrifying shot of Noah grabbing Evelyn’s sister/daughter Katherine (Belinda Palmer) from the car at the end. It is yet another wonderfully bleak encapsulation of why one is “better off not knowing”. Evelyn represented a perseverance, a refusal to let the world and her emotional scars keep her from starting anew. Katherine was the byproduct of that hope, aiming to give her the safety and the chances she never had. Instead, Katherine ends up with her abusive grandfather/father, continuing the cycle of corruption and destruction for another generation.
A tragic, gripping, and utterly bleak film, Chinatown is a masterpiece. While marvelously directed by Roman Polanski, the trio of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway, are what cements this as a truly brilliant work and one of cinema’s absolute finest. The score from Jerry Goldsmith and the cinematography from John A. Alonzo are certainly no slouch either, serving as two further examples of the absurd amount of talent that were behind Chinatown. Seeing them all come together and working at the top of their game’s, it is no wonder that this is one of the most revered films in history.