I rolled off the assembly line in 1974. At the same time, a young Polish director named Roman Polanski, along with an exceptional scribe named Robert Towne and an American icon in the making named Jack Nicholson, gave birth to the classic called Chinatown.
Many consider this Noir’s script to be flawless. Every line and deed contributes to the genre’s tragic message: life sucks. This message is rarely delivered in Hollywood today. It took the incredible clout of the Coen Brothers to bring The Man Who Wasn’t There to the big screen. But in the 70’s, Robert Evans was running Paramount and he balanced the almighty dollar with strong story. Under his tenure, Paramount released some of the finest American films ever made (i.e.(The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Godfather II, Marathon Man).
So let’s peep the setting?: it’s the 1930’s and the City of Los Angeles borders a dry, empty valley. Yes, the future homeland of the Valley Girls is empty desert. Enter a private dick played named J. J. Gittes, played by Nicholson.
He used to be a cop and he didn’t leave under great circumstances. He meets a woman with a story. And Jake’s (J. J.’s first name) got to help her out. And he does. But it ain’t the right broad (first of many twists to come). The right broad (played by Faye Dunaway) shows up.
Some powerful people are mixed up with this beauty and things get very, very messy. Polanski’s direction keeps the action and the twists coming at a steady pace. He is and was a superior helmer (and statuatory rapist). Robert Towne’s script is snappy and intelligent. And the surprises are plentiful.
Nicholson’s Gittes is a likable guy. He doesn’t bullshit and he’s just trying to get justice. He is in every scene in the movie and you just feel bad for the guy and all the shit he is going through. Dunaway is all class and hidden mystery; the more that is revealed, the uglier her portrait. And finally, John Huston plays Dunaway’s father, the water baron and master of amorality.
Major Spoiler Time: Do Not Read Ahead If You Intend To See The Movie!
At the end, all things fall apart. As with most noir’s, the utter tragedy of life is affirmed. It turns out that Huston raped and impregnated his only daughter and is on a quest to find his granddaughter/daughter. In the end, a police detective’s misaimed shot kills Dunaway and her death allows her Grandfather/Father to take the poor girl away. Jake can just look on and do nothing. I have seen hundreds of movies but I cannot think of any movie with a more repugnant ending (though Sophie’s Choice comes close). But great films elicit powerful emotions. Especially the ugly ones.
Interestingly enough, Towne wanted to end on a more positive note. He wanted Dunaway and her daughter to escape. But at the same time, he didn’t want a Disney finish. Huston’s plan to become obscenely rich on the tidal wave of the nascent new Valley would have been dramatized in a montage of still images showing the valley growing up into its current state. It’s hard to say if balance belongs in a Noir. But it sure as hell seems like a better ending than the soul-sucking death knell at the end of the original.
But it would not nearly be as good. It’s horrible. But it’s beautiful, too.
Major Spoiler Over.
All in all, there is not much that has not already been said about this classic film. A textbook example of Noir. Any film lover needs to see this movie.