Chinatown (1974) rightfully shares company with some of the most highly regarded films of the American cinema. The film delivers on all fronts – from writing, directing, photography, production design and editing, to a fabulous cast of actors. Chinatown’s creative forces integrate effortlessly to create a timeless film, which transcends genre. In this respect, it is a perfect film.
The 1970’s is considered by many to be the single best decade of American cinema. It was a period of tremendous transitions for the nation – from the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement to the end of Vietnam to the anxieties of the Watergate scandal. The marketing juggernaut of the more recent blockbuster film was not yet established, and so during this time, many films reflected the upheaval of the times and dared to challenge audiences with explorations of bold subject matter or the use of cutting-edge film techniques.
There were the conspiratorial politics of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor and Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View, the uncompromising crime thrillers of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and the incredible timeless classics from Francis Ford Coppola like The Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now… and so many more. The 1970’s was a period of true exploration for American cinema following the avant-garde of the European New Wave.
Within this period of renewed fascination with film and its potential as an art form was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Polanski is the Academy Award-winning director of 2002’s The Pianist, but at the time of Chinatown’s release in 1974, Polanski was already established as a talented international filmmaker. Beginning with his earliest films, Polanski was drawn towards darker tales, as well as fatalistic leading characters, but he also had a flair for irony and wicked humor.
His first feature, the international breakthrough Knife in the Water (1962), is a psychological thriller involving the tensions between a young couple and their newfound acquaintance while out sailing. Polanski had only begun as a feature filmmaker, but Knife in the Water was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
Polanski followed-up with another psychological masterpiece, Repulsion (1965).
The legendary Catherine Deneuve portrays a damaged young woman, and Polanksi effectively uses intense nightmarish imagery to convey her character’s terror of the outside world.
In The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Polanski attempted to integrate broad comedic sensibilities with gothic horror (in the vein of Hammer Films). It was Polanski’s next film, however, which solidly established his trajectory as a major filmmaker.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968), adapted from Ira Levin’s novel, received incredible critical and commercial success for Polanski. In true Polanski style, this horror thriller maintains a mischievous tone throughout. As Rosemary begins to doubt her neighbors’ intent, we still hope for her well-being.
And when the horror of Rosemary’s situation is revealed, Polanski does not turn the film over to typical expectations – he still manages to keep that twinkle of irony going with Rosemary’s ending declaration. Film critic Roger Ebert stated, “Polanski has taken a most difficult situation and made it believable, right up to the end. In this sense, he even outdoes Hitchcock.” And audiences agreed – on a budget of $2.3 million, the film earned over $33 million in its initial theatrical run. It proclaimed the arrival of a young Mia Farrow and even garnered an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Ruth Gordon.
A few years later, Polanski would direct Chinatown.
Chinatown is a seedy mystery of greed, power, corruption and sexual tension set in the Los Angeles of 1937. It is to Polanski’s credit that even though the plot of Chinatown (based upon the California Water Wars of the 1910’s and 1920’s) is already complicated, he focuses just as much attention on the inner motivations of his characters. This is truly adult stuff – not in the sense of graphic depictions of sex or violence, but in its portrayal of complex character motivations.
Initially, the film seems to embrace its traditional noir origins, mining the familiar tropes of the crime drama, and seething with cynical attitudes and tense sexuality. But as a visionary filmmaker, Polanski is not interested in homage – he wants to invert audience expectations and redefine the genre. Just when you think you know where Chinatown’s plot will go, Polanski shines a light in another direction and you understand a clue anew in its true context. And just when you think you’ve made up your mind about a character’s place in this story, Polanski makes sure you are surprised. As the protagonist, JJ “Jake” Gittes is not really the hard-boiled detective of old, but a guy with heart, who may have realized his error too late. And during the third act, when a primary character confesses to one of the film’s most stunning revelations, it is tantamount to reversing your entire fulfillment of this character up to that point!
It is no small feat that Polanski brought together such a strong creative team for this moment in film history:
- Robert Evans (Producer) was Paramount’s Head of Production during the 1960’s, shepherding films like The Odd Couple, True Grit, The Godfather and Serpico during his tenure;
- Robert Towne (Screenwriter) received the Academy Award for Chinatown, but was also nominated for The Last Detail and Shampoo;
- John A. Alonzo (Cinematographer) had previously lensed Vanishing Point and Harold and Maude, and then went on to Brian DePalma’s update of Scarface;
- Sam O’Steen (Editor) worked on such famous films as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate;
- Jerry Goldsmith (Composer) was known for elevating the art of film scoring and he had already garnered several Academy Award nominations at the time;
- And, of course, then there was the legendary cast – Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
Polanski’s Chinatown is perfection in its balance of story, character and emotion. Like the best artistic creations, Chinatown transcends its genre and its time, and it continues to be a classic today.
During its initial release, Chinatown garnered 11 Academy Award nominations and was the winner for Robert Towne’s original screenplay. The Golden Globes awarded Chinatown with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Screenplay. The film is often cited as one of the best on many critics’ lists and it still enjoys a 100% critical rating on the Website Rotten Tomatoes. And in 2010, Britain’s Guardian named Chinatown as “the best film of all time.”
Although Polanski’s work has been uneven at times since Chinatown, he has certainly not lost his edge. The year following Chinatown, Polanski’s The Tenant was the blackest of comedies, as a paranoid tenant believes all of his neighbors may be conspiring to get rid of him – permanently. In the years thereafter, Polanski continues to challenge audience expectations through his dark, delirious tales of mystery and deception – Tess, Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden and The Ninth Gate. With 2002’s The Pianist, Polanksi returned to critical triumph, finally winning the Best Director Academy Award.
Most recently, 2010’s The Ghost Writer demonstrated that as he nears 80, Polanski can still engage and surprise audiences with the best of them. His focus on the intriguing story and characters of The Ghost Writer creates a multi-layered mystery, and the final tracking shot in which a character’s fate is sealed so deliciously is classic Polanski (and most certainly one of the single best cinematic shots of recent memory).
Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown, returns triumphantly for new audiences when it is released for the first time on Blu-ray this week.