Top 100 Movie Review: #19 – Chinatown (1974)

Gut Crushing Neo-Noir

I don’t know if the ending could have been any other way.

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Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

American Film Institute Ranking: #19/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for 11 winning one: Best Original Screenplay.
My Rating:cropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-starcropped-smooth-star

This movie gets a lot of hyperbole thrown its way with many people describing it as having the best script ever.  I like it, just maybe not on that cataclysmic of a level.

I love noir with the unscrupulous detective, ineffective police, corrupt government, and gritty delivery. “Chinatown” is just another reincarnation, and with an intriguing mystery paired with a stomach-punch ending, it fulfills the expectations of the genre.

chinatown

[story/spoilers.]

J.J. “Jake” Gitts (Jack Nicholson) is a private detective hired to trail the husband of his client. The husband works as a chief engineer for Los Angeles and is refusing to build a water reservoir which is causing some public outcry due to an extreme water shortage. Jake takes some pictures of him with a younger girl and calls it a day.

The scandal breaks involving the affair. Unfortunately for Jake, the real wife of the engineer, Evelyne Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), shows up in his office wondering why he was trailing her husband. Realizing he was set up, Jake decides to figure out what is happening and clear his name.

Before he can talk to the engineer, he washes up on shore dead. He also discovers that water is being intentionally released into the ocean every night, making the water shortage even more dire. What follows is an unraveling of family affairs, wealth, and corruption permeating the entire ecosystem of Los Angeles.

Chinatown ending
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

[analysis.]

The film is standard noir and anyone who knows the genre will be able to check off all of the expected themes and motifs. So, what makes this film so great? It just does it so well. 

The incestuous business magnate Noah Cross trying to further his empire even in his twilight years (played by Jon Huston) is a perfect example of the corruption Noir is supposed to bring to light.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?

Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!

Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

Then we have the femme fatale of Evelyn. The entire film she is an enigma. She strings along Jake, using him, lying to him, and misleading the anti-hero of the story. Then it is revealed that she is the only morally-centered character of the entire cast.

Chinatown is the title of the movie, but oddly enough, it doesn’t play a part until the very end. Jake used to work in Chinatown, and his time there was filled with confusion — things just didn’t make sense to him there! Now he is embroiled in a major scandal and the climax is about to happen where his old beat used to be.

Everything implodes: the police arrest Jake instead of listening to his advice, Evelyn is killed trying to escape her  father/husband, and then Noah Cross gets his daughter back who he fathered with Evelyn. Everything goes wrong. Jake is in utter shock not knowing what to do. His business partner tells hims “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” In essence, don’t try and make sense of what just happened here. 

Then the movie ends. People destroyed, society fails, and corruption wins.

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[conclusion.]

This movie is a sucker punch. Most of the film, you are just as confused as Jake who is feverishly trying to piece it all together. As we get close to the climax, things start to fall in place and we feel the momentum of good fortune. Then we take the trip to Chinatown and all of our sensibilities are smashed. The movie is solid in its own right, but the ending bumps it up a notch, making you walk away carrying a heavy weight in the pit of your stomach.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Absurdly Nerdy: ” I guess I prefer happy endings, or at least justified endings and that doesn’t happen in this movie.”
  • Raymond on Film & Photography:“Polanski and Towne show the power of subtlety and letting an audience form its own conclusions about characters. “
  • ROCOS:  “The more I’ve thought about the intelligence behind the film, the closer Chinatown is to getting a perfect from me.”

Author: Casual But Smart

I review the top 100 books, movies, albums, and games of all time.

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