Fifty Great Films: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Ah, that gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score…. Watching Chinatown again (this time on Blu-ray) having not seen it for a few years…. I wonder what is left to say, after so many years, about such a universally recognised classic film-  well, its certainly a great film. One of the greats, to be sure, which had me thinking about writing a group of posts as I watch/re-watch what I consider to be fifty great films. Hell, at the very least its a great excuse to re-visit some old faves. So Chinatown is the first.

Chinatown is one of those films that just seems to have come together at the right time at the right place. Everyone involved, cast and crew, is at the top of their game and that strange synchronicity occurs, in which something truly great is created as if by some strange alchemy of art and craft and business and circumstance. I had almost forgotten just how great and nuanced an actor Nicholson once was. Here he is just at the right age and at the right place at the right time to be JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, in just the same way as Robert DeNiro was perfect as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Some guys are just born for a part. And Jerry Goldsmith, at the height of his powers, knocking this score out in just nine days. Good grief. Robert Townes screenplay… John A Alonzo’s cinematography… the cast… its all motion picture gold.

Watching it again I was rather oddly reminded of Blade Runner, which would be made less than a decade later; another film greater than its parts that the passing of time just enriches somehow. But maybe that’s just me referencing Blade Runner again… (yeah, you can be sure Scott’s classic will be amongst my top fifty). But Chinatown just, well, seems to share Blade Runner‘s feel somehow. Chinatown is as much about its sense of place and time as it is about its characters (its 1930s LA as much a character of the film as the 2019 LA of Scotts’ future noir would be in its own film); events unfold carrying the protagonist along, the pace is slow, measured… Jack Nicholson’s weary J J ‘Jake’ Gittes seems as aimless as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. They are both trapped in worlds and lives they don’t really control, victims of fate; witnesses of the films events- I guess that’s the whole film noir/future noir vibe.

A summary of the story almost seems perfunctory, incidental. In 1930s Los Angeles, cop-turned-private eye JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) makes a living from sleazy divorce cases, and is called upon to investigate Hollis Mulwray, the head of the Department of Water and Power, whose wife believes is having an affair. The case seems like straightforward adultery – but a mystery soon unravels and Gittes finds he is way over his head in something much murkier and deadlier. Each time he thinks he has a grip on things a new piece of evidence seems to undermine his expectations, a revelation setting off another bombshell/twist until we reach the devastating, inevitable conclusion. Its a dense film – it is, thank God, one of those films that if you walk out and miss five minutes then you have no hope of returning to it and still following it, or at least of picking up its nuances. It certainly reveals much in repeated viewings, although there is a sense of recurring nightmare here, when we know what’s coming, but somehow forlornly hope events will change for the better (but of course they don’t). Its a great, great film, a study of futility and corruption and human greed and sordid depravity and of coldness. The good guys don’t always win, the innocent don’t always get justice, the bad guys don’t always get punished. Sometimes you just can’t do anything, you are simply a victim of inevitable fate. The last line spoken lingering for a long time  in the viewers mind after the film concludes-

“Forget it, Jake… it’s Chinatown.”