Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is definitely one of the best crime thrillers of the 20th century. It owes much both to the fantastic structure and its complex character study, ingeniously plotted within the suspenseful storyline. It’s his fascinating take on the corruption, greed and violence that lead people to become inhumane and brutal towards one another. It’s like this real, and metaphorical ‘Chinatown’ in every bigger town in the USA – a place where everything happens on its own rules. Or even better, there aren’t actually any rules, just the law of the jungle, one might say. Of course the rule applies as much to a single district, as to a whole city, or even country.
J. J. Gittes has to cope with one of the hardest cases that he had ever encountered. Normally, it all comes down to a few pictures of a cheating spouse (that’s his business all right) to end a chapter. But this time it’s something much bigger and more dangerous. He embarks on a path, which heads toward the discovery of a scheme that concerns the whole city of Los Angeles and its huge water supply. What’s more, in all this crazy, dizzying mess Gittes meets a very fascinating and troubled woman, with a difficult mystery attached to herself.
After spending time with her Gittes is able to realize how pathological her family really is. And pathology is a right word in this context, as the amount of incest and other closely related themes is enormous.
The uncontested brilliance that Polanski has shown in Chinatown is contained in its complicated storyline and great use of symbolism, connected to every thing water-y. Almost everywhere you can sense the impact put on various connotations regarding water, not only in dialogues but also in the aspect of sensual experiences. For example, tapping water in the sink plays great with the overwhelming silence in the scene, where J. J. discovers a dead body on the floor.
I really admire Jack Nicholson for his marvelous work in every picture that he stars in, but his role in Chinatown is for me the definition of his career. The way he plays Gittes just makes you want more of his on-screen time (even though he is the main character). He sometimes shows a very serious side of his nature, but he can also come up with a fine amount of great jokes and insults. He is sacrificing his own life to terminate a case, which he wasn’t even supposed to be involved in. Nicholson shows a bunch of acting skills that make his act very believable and entertaining. Faye Dunaway gives a decent performance as this classy, but very disturbed woman trying to help herself cope with the peculiar problems of her strange family. Note: Don’t miss the very funny cameo by Polanski, who plays this scary, tiny man with a knife. Many laughs assured!
Polanski also makes a great use of the plot device known as a MacGuffin. The murder, which occurs in the beginning of the film isn’t actually the thing that drives the plot later on. Even though Gittes is trying to find the killer, the picture is more about an insight into the characters and their profiles to provide a definitive explanation of this gruesome story.
All in all, I highly recommend Chinatown as one the best avant-garde crime movies ever directed and one of the finest, freshest takes on the pristine noir genre. Great directing, thrilling storyline and many detailed puzzles hidden in it account for a most memorable experience.