Sometimes, you get occasions when cinema screenings line up perfectly with other plans you have, and that was definitely the case here. I was having a bit of a hard time deciding which film to do for my Blind Spot this month but then I found out that one of my favourite nearby cinemas, The Electric in Birmingham, would be holding a screening of Chinatown as part of their Cinematic Time Machine series of showings so I decided to go along and make Chinatown my Blind Spot pick for August, and I’m so glad I did. Seeing this film in the cinema was an incredible experience and deliberately keeping myself in the dark about the film made it’s impact all the stronger for me.The film focuses on private detective Jake ‘JJ’ Gittes, who gets hired by the wife of engineer Hollis Mulwray to document evidence of an affair he’s having. Once Gittes has the evidence and it appears in the press it’s revealed that the person who hired Gittes wasn’t the real Evelyn Mulwray, who is threatening to sue him. Upon realising this, Gittes decides to investigate what was going on with Mulwray in order to find out who set him up, uncovering a plot involving the control of the water supply of Los Angeles. What works so well about the plot of the film is that the mystery over what is happening is allowed to play out naturally. The audience finds out everything at the same time that Gittes does, allowing the audience to piece together the mystery in the same way that Gittes does, which gets you invested in the story to a much greater degree than if the audience had known some of the information beforehand, truly putting us in the shoes of Gittes throughout the film. What also works about the film is how cynical it ends up being, mainly in terms of how the plot involving the control of the water is resolved, which I won’t spoil here. Speaking of which, the actual conspiracy that Gittes is trying to uncover is fascinating to watch unfold, all the different layers to it being very intelligently written and it’s easy to see why the screenplay of this film became so influential over the years. There’s also a sense of history to all of the characters that we hear about in the margins of the film, finding out just enough to shape the world and makes you relate more to the characters, again adding to the cynicism of the film. Furthermore, everything that you see in the film has some importance later on, it keeps you on your toes throughout, seeing if you can figure out some of the mysteries before Gittes, although there are some mysteries you will not see the resolution to coming.
The performances meanwhile add to the atmosphere of the film, mainly that of Jack Nicholson. There’s a weariness to Nicholson’s performance in the film, it’s clear that he’s good at his job, but he doesn’t like what he does. When he’s hired by the fake Evelyn Mulwray he advises her to drop the whole thing. He also shows that he is haunted by some of the stuff he saw in the past, mainly what he saw in Chinatown, but there’s still a humour to the character, even if it is more like gallows humour to hide his pain, along with more of a warm side, far removed from the traditional grizzled private detectives I’m used to seeing in noirs. Faye Dunaway meanwhile is equally good as Evelyn Mulwray, like Nicholson showing that there is something haunting her throughout the film through her body language and there’s a great contrast between the cool, calm exterior she presents herself with to the characters of the film when in public and the more vulnerable, haunted side of the character we see when it’s just Evelyn and Gittes. John Huston is brilliant as Noah Cross, Evelyn’s dad, there being a great dark charm to the character, showing how he was able to get into the position of prominence he has, whilst also showing that there is something sinister about the character, with his performance getting into the heart of one of the themes of the film, mainly the power of greed and how all encompassing it is. Once we find out the full nature of Cross though, Huston’s performance takes on a much darker turn that works wonders for the tone of the film.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Chinatown has the reputation it does as being one of the best film noirs to have ever been made. Whilst the direction from Roman Polanski, the cinematography by John Alonzo and the music by Jerry Goldsmith do a great job at setting the mood for the film, they pale in comparison to excellent performances and one of the most tightly written and intelligent scripts ever put to screen. In any other film the direction, music and cinematography would be enough to make it a classic but here, they’re the icing to an incredibly well constructed cake.
My Rating: 5/5