Nathan Chandler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Okay, I get it. Hollywood really likes the film noir genre. With this AFI list, I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of film noir lately. Coming off the heels of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, Chinatown both subverts and heralds the genre. Why are audiences so drawn to this pulpy content? It provides for a winning formula because the dark style lends itself to a cinematic vision. Plus, it dives into the seediness world of crime and sex, which are areas that most people avoid. The genre allows audiences to be entertained by the subject manner, but most importantly, places them in the middle of the mystery. You find yourself trying to pick apart the clues just like the main character. Chinatown masterfully uses these elements to mold an entertaining crime story that challenges the viewer to reexamine the way they view the world.
Former cop turned private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) finds himself in the middle of a water scandal (yes, water) after taking on a case that appears to be just a run-of-the-mill, “I think my husband is cheating on me,” investigation. His curiosity gets the best of him (and his nose) as he discovers a devious plot to control the water supply to Los Angeles. His inquiries take him down a trail of murder, millionaires and romantic flings (Faye Dunaway) as he tries to uncover a syndicate that is more than he can handle alone.
Chinatown is sneaky good. On the surface it’s an enjoyable crime story that steps on the gas pedal and never lets up. You are quickly caught up in the story, mainly due to the charisma of Nicholson. You are just as puzzled as he is that something as simple as water could lead to a gruesome murder. The plot is always one step ahead of the viewer and although I saw this movie some time ago, I couldn’t quite remember how things get to the spot they are at. Honestly, I don’t know if I could concisely break down how everything ties together, but that is one of the strengths of this film. It never plays down to its audience while never forgetting the elements of film that captivate. Chinatown has a very intelligent script at its core and it leads to revelations that are sinister and vile. As things unravel, you think to yourself, “Wait, is this really what is going on?” But the sad part is, it’s a true depiction of life. We like to think that people have good intentions in this world, but greed and money dictate so much of how this world operates. This makes the themes of Chinatown just as relevant today.
Gittes is the embodiment of a person that does everything that I never would have the balls to do. Jack Nicholson is so good in this role. I love how the character never hesitates. He always uses everything at his disposal and wears the mantra, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” at all times. He’s a guy that could walk into a hotel with no reservation and somehow end up having a free night in the president’s suite. His unpredictability is the perfect lens to watch this film through.
The film noir is usually filled with dark shadows and smoky rooms, but director Roman Polanski flips the genre on its head by having the majority of the scenes play out in the sunny desserts and mansions of L.A. Sometimes it takes a true outsider to shake up a process that has always existed. Some of our best American films are made by foreign directors. They are able to bring an outsiders perspective that enhances the stories that we know so well. This AFI list is proof of that and Polanski is no exception. He double downs on the grittiness of the genre and makes the audience reevaluate what we have come to expect of the genre. The last line of this movie has quickly become iconic and rightfully so. It sums up the movie perfectly while also reflecting how so many people see our world, no matter what decade it is.
Like Woody Allen’s works, it’s hard to watch Roman Polanski’s films without thinking about the sex crime that he was charged with. It is sadly fitting and ironic that such a great film like Chinatown is put on a pedestal, but the underbelly of its creator is so grimy and gross. It’s hard to separate the artist from his works. As hard as it is to separate Polanski’s personal life with this film, Chinatown is a thought-provoking story that uses every element of film to its highest achievement.
I give Chinatown five out of five nose bandages.