Chinatown

Set in the 30s, this nostalgic thriller, in the style of Hammett and Chandler, draws on the history of Los Angeles, specifically the water- rights and real-estate swindles. You can feel the conflict between the temperaments of the scriptwriter, Robert Towne, and the director, Roman Polanski. In Towne's conception, the audience discovers the depth of the corruption along with the romantic-damn-fool detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Polanski, whose movies don't leave you anything to hang on to, turns the material into an extension of his world view: he makes the LA atmosphere gothic and creepy from the word go. The film holds you, in a suffocating way. Polanski never lets the story tell itself. It's all overdeliberate, mauve, nightmarish; everyone is yellow-lacquered, and evil runs rampant. You don't care who is hurt, since everything is blighted. And yet the nastiness has a look, and a fascination. There's a celebrated background story to the film. The script had originally ended after Gittes realizes what horrors the woman he loved, the twitchy liar Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), had been through. And then she kills her incestuous, baronial father (John Huston) in order to save her daughter from him, and Gittes helps the young girl get to Mexico. But Polanski, an absurdist, seals the picture with his gargoyle grin. He ends it with the death of Evelyn Mulwray and the triumph of the Huston character, who had raped the land, raped his daughter, and would now proceed to corrupt the daughter's daughter. Polanski's temperament dominates (and he seems indifferent to some of the plot points). Yet Towne's temperament comes through, too, especially in Nicholson's Jake Gittes, the vulgarian hero who gives the picture much of its comedy: Gittes gets to tell wittily inane, backslapping jokes, and to show the romanticism inside his street shrewdness. With Polanski as the vicious "midget" hood who takes his knife and slits open Gittes' nose, Burt Young as the man looking at pictures of his faithless wife, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Joe Mantell, and Diane Ladd. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo; production design by Richard Sylbert; editing by Sam O'Steen; music by Jerry Goldsmith. (A sequel, THE TWO JAKES, was released in 1990.) Robert Evans produced, for Paramount.