At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Chinatown

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Film Noir/ Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Dick Bakalyan, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, James Hong, Burt Young/ Runtime: 130 minutes

I feel that it is safe to say that for every genre of film that exists there will always be a handful of movies that absolutely define it. For War it will always be Saving Private Ryan or All Quiet on the Western Front. For Sci-Fi it will always be Star Wars, Star Trek, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. For Westerns I definitely think the Dollars trilogy, Unforgiven, Shane, or Once Upon a Time in the West would definitely fit the bill. Indeed it should go without saying, but these are, in addition to excellent movies, genuine classics that will always stand the test of time and always be a joy to watch. The reason I bring this up is because I feel that the 1974 PI film Chinatown is one of those movies I talked about earlier in this review. This is because it is this film which I believe is the movie which is the best-case example of what constitutes as a defining film for the Mystery genre of filmmaking. Indeed Chinatown is such a perfectly dark and moody cinematic outing that manages to be both so comfortable in its style of doing things and convincing towards it’s authenticity, that if this wasn’t filmed in color there would actually be little if anything to tell it apart from say The Maltese Falcon back in the 40’s. Yet even with that in mind, I do feel that this movie being filmed in color does serve one distinct purpose. That purpose is to help accomplish the objective of attempting to suck this movie’s audience further into this film’s engaging world and then pull them deeper into an engrossing mystery alongside the three-dimensional characters who all have a part to play in it. Ultimately however, this film’s entire package is what has helped make this film the all-time classic piece of cinema that it truly is and deserves to be called for now and all time. Indeed when you combine a phenomenal script, a spot-on cast, and truly amazing work from the film’s director this film is a perfect example of just why we as human beings love the art of cinema as much as we do. Indeed Chinatown is a brilliant cinematic experience that, despite being in possession of a strong sense of realism, also manages to work in a sense of heart that helps make the bold, adult, and pitch black dark finale just a little bit more palpable for audiences albeit not by much. Yet given how everything ends that is perfectly ok because it’s the most realistic, as heartless as it may sound, conclusion to the events you will have just witnessed unfold before your very eyes….

The plot is as follows: Chinatown takes us back to the 1930’s and introduces us to a Los Angeles-area based PI by the name of Jake Gittes. Once a cop in the LAPD, Gittes has since turned his attention toward trying to help people as best he can, and has since investigated more than a significant amount of cases. However every detective has a specific kind of case he’s good at, and in the case of Gittes his specialty seems to be exposing cheating significant others and in an area like LA it seems that suspicious spouses really are more numerous than whiskers on a cat; a fact that although it provides Gittes with plenty of work, has also further exasperated a sense of cynicism that has been rooted in him since his time in the LAPD. Thus when a woman decides to come to him in the hopes that he will help her either confirm or deny of her suspicions of a husband whose eye may be a’wanderin’, Gittes thinks there’s nothing substantial to her claims to the point that he even attempts to persuade the woman to not pursue the matter any further than she already has. However the woman proves to be tenacious and Gittes decides at least to hear her out and while discussing the details with her, her husband’s name actually manages to strike a chord with Gittes. This is because her husband is none other than the city’s Chief Engineer for the Water and Power Division. That’s significant to Gittes for two reasons: first and foremost is the fact that this man is a significant public figure, and two because LA is currently experiencing a catastrophic drought, and this man, due to previous failures and mistakes made, is the one who is currently opposing a city-council proposed dam that has the best chance of actually conquering the drought conditions. Thus with these things in mind, Gittes decides to take the case and, much to his surprise, actually cracks it quite easily. Upon completion however, Gittes quickly finds that what he has uncovered has only lead to only more questions. This is because, following the publication of a set of pictures of Hollis and another woman appearing all over the news, Gittes finds himself being is confronted by a woman named Evelyn who turns out to be the real Mrs. Mulwray. Now what looked like a simple case doesn’t look as easy cheesy as it did and so Gittes decides to soldier on and dig further. Of course it should go without saying, but the further he digs and the more he finds out, the more Gittes begins to see just how entangled in a potentially-fatal web of lies and peril he has found himself in. Yet as perilous as this web is, that still pales in comparison to the unspeakable truths that await Gittes at the end of this investigation…..

Now if there were 2 main concepts that I felt best showcased why this film is as successful as it is I would have to say style and narrative. Yet even though those are two concepts which usually are not mutually placed together like that, I do feel that in this case not only are they placed together, but that everything that usually aids those 2 ideas separately find themselves all working together in perfect harmony in the name of realism. Indeed it should be no surprise, but in this film one could not exist without the other working at full power to the point that if there was a flaw to be found then it would be a flaw in both departments. Kudos must be given then to this film’s cast and crew because there really is no flaws or imperfections to be found because this film really is 100% solid. Indeed this movie may not be for everyone due to taking its time getting to where it needs to yet the film manages to use this to wonderful effect by taking the time to immerse the viewer both in where this film takes place and what happens within the film’s story. Indeed right off the get go this is a film which manages to show what kind of movie it is through no more than soundtrack and style of the title alone. Indeed I definitely feel the smooth yet also slightly depressing score mixed with that distinct cursive-and-block font on screen manage to be our introduction to a set the stage for a contemplating story from a long-gone era where the way people looked may have been clear as day, but trust me when I say that what happens in the movie, the settings the movie takes you to, and the people you encounter on the movie’s journey are truly anything and everything but simple. Not only that, but this film’s sense of style is so unsettling accurate that it almost feels that this film’s background becomes more than just a restoration of the locale and period of time that is vital to the narrative. Indeed it may not be as pitch-black as some of it’s peers so much so that the backdrop becomes something more than a recreation of a place and time critical to the story. Indeed it may be not as dark in some of the ways that the films of it’s ilk that came before it were, but in other ways it most certainly is. I say that because a lot of the parts that made such films as The Maltese Falcon classics are in place in this film. Above all else though is the fact that this film manages to go to the very dark, mature, adult, and usually not seen, but most definitely felt, soul that has always been a huge part of what distinguishes the merely good from the exceptional and trust me when I say that this film is most certainly the latter category in every way.

Now I definitely that the story that this film manages to bring to the table definitely is given the same amount of attention as the style that surrounds it. Yet while the story may be old-fashioned to a degree, I do feel that the themes of power, politics, and greed that it chooses to zero in on throughout are absolutely timeless in nature. Indeed no matter what period of time you choose to look at I have little to no doubt that you will see that those concepts have always been at hand in the majority of dealings amongst people then, now, and forever more. It is in that respect then that I can safely say that this film will certainly not lose how relevant it is from a thematic perspective though there are other areas that certainly help the movie along in their own right. Indeed make no mistake; this film contains a plot which is highly wise in how it chooses to slowly develop, but ultimately showcase a nuance and intelligence many other movies could only wish to possess. Not only that, but this film’s cast of characters are also infinitely more complicated than the typical cast of players in a film like this who literally are able to telegraph who they are from a mile away. Indeed this film manages to have characters that are put together wonderfully both internally and externally and they even manage to provide audiences with an always-welcome sense of purpose and urgency towards the events that happen in this film that even manages to extend past the usual gratification that originates when the audience is finally able to solve the mystery alongside Jake. Indeed this is a movie which not only involves you in what happens throughout, but also guarantees that you care: both about the mystery and also about the many paths that help lead to its solution. Indeed trust me when I say that what this case looks like on the surface is nothing more than an opportunity to get a much closer look at these characters as well as provide for an opportunity for them to show just who they and others around them truly are: both the good and the bad. Indeed all of these positives just simply would not be possible in the slightest if this film was not as persuasive as it was to have us look at the people involved and see if they are the kind to unleash a darkness upon the world or if they are the kind who will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening no matter what the cost.

Now it should also be said that it is the work done on both sides of the camera that also aid immensely in the act of making this movie into the cinematic powerhouse that it is. Indeed, and to be fair, the work done here by director Roman Polanski’s is not in the slightest unique. With that being said however, it is refreshing in both how it manages to be steady and unobtrusive while all the while managing to be a showcase for specific attention to detail that proves to be absolutely just what this film needs in the creation of the right mood for the world of the film. Indeed his personal life aside, this is wonderful work from a director who has arguably been one of the most controversial in the history of the cinema medium. Along with that I feel that this movie manages to possess both a musical score that is wonderful in how true it manages to be both to when the narrative is set and to the narrative itself and a sense of editing that foes a wonderful job of keeping the film going yet also making sure to take its slow, sweet time in revealing the details needed to flesh out the characters and the world they live in.

As for the acting performances in this film, each and every one of them are phenomenal, but they are all overshadowed more than somewhat by Jack Nicholson in what remains one of the best and most defining efforts of his long and storied career as a film icon. Indeed Nicholson, in a well-deserved Oscar-nominated turn, manages to do an uncanny job of portraying a character who may be a little bit too human yet who is also calculating and absolutely dedicated to his job and whatever task at hand he happens to be conducting whilst also managing to maintain an inner moral code that helps keep him from straying too far into the darkness like so many of the other characters he encounters. Indeed Nicholson does a wonderful job of showcasing the film’s twists and turns both by his actions as much as does with his glances and what he chooses to say. In fact I would say that Gittes is the audience’s main link to this movie, and even manages to be the best kind of lead character. That of course would be the kind of lead character that takes the audience along for the ride thus enabling the audience to figure things out as he does. Indeed thanks to a script that never telegraphs ahead to let you in on where it is going, there is not a single moment that you are ever ahead of the main character. As such when he gets emotionally and physically rocked, banged-up, and bruised you do too and the treatments for some of those injuries quickly become a painful reminder. Not only of how serious this investigation becomes, but also of the repercussions of his actions and of the fact that this guy is human, but by the same token, so are we. Thus with that knowledge shivering down your spine, the movie does a wonderful job of causing movie goers not only to cling tighter to their seat, but also actually care and empathize with the people in this world. A fact that becomes all the more heartbreaking when you realize that this mystery can only be solved in a handful of ways, and not a single one of them promise a 100% happy ending. Also of considerable mention are several of Nicholson’s co-stars in this deliciously sinister web of intrigue starting with Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray. Indeed this had to be a tough part to play due to the character not really coming clean about certain things until the last 20+ minutes and always having an air of mistrust about her yet Dunaway manages to pull it off whilst also adding an air of a caged yet wounded vulnerability to her performance and she plays it beautifully. Also of note is the performance given by the late yet highly regarded film director John Huston. Indeed it might not be the biggest part in the movie, and it may be over 1/3rd of the movie before he shows up, but Huston manages to make the most of his screen time and gives us an antagonist that’s chilling: both in the lengths he will go to achieve his goals, and with the calm, courteous, polite demeanor in which he does them. All in all a remarkable performance from one of Old School Hollywood’s most highly regarded.

All in all and at the end of the day while there have been many movies since Chinatown that have been just like it, there have also been few if any of those other movies that have matched the caliber of the finished product of this masterpiece. Indeed Chinatown is a very dark and very engrossing mystery for adults that has stood the test of time as one of the best PI movies ever made and it is one that I can see holding that achievement for a long, long time to come. Definitely see it if you haven’t had the pleasure of doing so, but go into knowing as little as possible. Trust me when I say that it will all be worth it in the end…. On a scale of 1-5 I give Chinatown a solid 5 out of 5.

Hello there movie goers! Once again the team of At the Movies has discovered, upon viewing the trailer, that it is significantly spoiler-heavy. Thus we have elected not to place it here so that you can enjoy this film to the absolute fullest! Thank you all for the love and support and we’ll see you guys….at the movies! Ag