Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, took the film noir in a whole new direction, subverting the American Dream into a bleak portrait of corporate America. Jack J. Gittes (Nicholson) is a PI brought in to investigate an adultery case for a women he believes to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), daughter to the LA Water Company tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) and wife to his partner Hollis (Darrell Zwerling). As the case develops, Jack becomes embroiled with the real Evelyn (Dunaway) in a tale of corruption, deceit and murder, that poetically deconstructs the tropes of the genre.
The opening credits, with its bluesy score from Jerry Goldsmith, sets the anticipation for a voiceover that never comes. Instead, we are transported to the stark, sun-drenched deserts that encroach on the LA hills. Polanski captures these expansive landscapes, breaking away for the most part from the traditional murky shadows of noir’s history. The script and screenplay from Robert Towne carefully reveals its many mysteries with true artistry. Equally pivotal to Chinatown’s success is Nicholson’s restrained performance. Within the first act he is scared by having his nose cut open by a hood (a cameo from Polanski himself), an unusual yet wholly successful choice that makes the character more human.
We follow the case along with Gittes, who in the course of the journey tells lewd jokes and quips acerbic lines, but above all seeks the truth like a bloodhound on the scent. The ghost of Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is ever present, but Nicholson provides original flourishes including a surprising tenderness to his character. He is all at once romantic, masculine and a touch feminine, a combination that reveals a far more human and rounded character than we have come to expect from the typical heroes of detective noir novelists such as Raymond Chandler.
Nicholson’s likeable quality is perfectly contrasted by a creeping and malevolent performance from Huston, who we immediately distrust but are never sure why. Huston also delivers one of the most famous lines of the movie: “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” This remarkable quip cuts to the quick of the movie’s ethos, where despair, murder and tragedy lurk around every corner. Gone are the bright lights of the City of Angels; instead each character is fallen, possessing some level of guilt for a crime, legal or moral. When you consider that only a few years earlier Polanski lost his wife in the notorious Charles Manson murders, his deconstruction of American life is perhaps unsurprising, showing signs of a promising Hollywood career.
With the magnificent Chinatown, Polanski crafted one of the most important and impressive films of the 1970s. It immediately draws you into the world of lies and deceit, where past ghosts of detective films linger in the frames. Yet it also feels completely fresh even to this day, and goes to much darker places than the films of the 1940s ever could – a gripping mystery with a career-defining performance from the one and only Nicholson.
Chinatown screens as part of the BFI’s Roman Polanski season, which runs throughout January and February 2013. For more info and to buy tickets, visit http://bit.ly/VvLmNw.