Language: English, Cantonese, Spanish
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Robert Towne
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Polanski’s cynical noir-ish tale, CHINATOWN forces himself to retread the sad place of Los Angeles, where her pregnant wife Sharon Tate (along with several other friends) was brutally murdered in 1969. Ever so unfalteringly, he sticks to his guns, renders the whodunit mystery with an unadulterated tragic ending, as an acerbic retort to a patriarch society inundated with dyed-in-the-wool corruption both morally and economically, in memory of those innocently victimised.
J.J. Gittes (Nicholson), a copper-turned-private-eye, is swindled to investigate the hanky-panky of Hollis Mulwray (Zwerling), the chief engineer of L.A. Department of Water and Power, will soon discover something much bigger and sinister than that, after Hollis’ sudden death and the involvement of Hollis’ wife Evelyn (Dunaway), Gittes is intrigued to unearth the truth, which also implicates Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (Huston), a magnate once was the business partner of Hollis. But, sometimes, human vice is so unspeakable and rotten-to-the-core, having almost lost his nose, Gittes would finally realise that he is still wet behind the ears in his profession, his heroic act seems astute and intrepid, but in the end of the day, it can not tip the scale, like his unspecified past in Chinatown, where he was an officer of the law, he again miserably fails to save the good and innocent from the hands of death and evil. The soul-shattering upshot is a rarely seen defiance in the mainstream cinema where a director holds sway of the final say, and its aftershock hangs around, that’s why CHINATOWN is so unique and groundbreaking.
Uniformly, the film is hailed as one of the finest productions out of Hollywood, Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script delineates a conspiracy theory based on the true story which grants the story a tangible relevance, but also dives into a more personal matter of shocking taboo, to establish cinema is really a voyeuristic projector of all the dirty corners in our universe, A minor bellyaching is that, Gittes’ function in the plot feels somewhat contrived, if Noah is so intent on locating what he is looking for, why on earth he would leave Evelyn out of his sight? Which is only for the benefit of storytelling that Gittes can always precede everyone else, he remains the sole source to tell audience what is the truth, that’s something may or may not bother you.
There are plenty of memorable shots with distinctive flair, whether it is shot from a telescope lens, or a rearview mirror, the camera extends as a furtive, ambiguous onlooker with no further engagement, brooding and spying. Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score (made only in 10 days) lures viewers into that vintage era and then entraps them in the melancholy, suspense and thrill.
Nicholson’s Gittes, who appears so competent and sharp-witted most of the time, conceals the star’s smug persona and conveys a engaging commitment of the happening as the plot thickens, one of my personal favourite performance from him, simply because one literally sympathises for his vulnerability and powerlessness when he is held to face the bleak music; Dunaway, whose inscrutable mien reveals a little bit of something, each time her Evelyn comes under the spotlight, is she a femme fatale? a partner-in-crime? an insider? or just a victim? She keeps her secrecy until the big moment, the astonishing no-sham-slapping spectacles, what can one say? It just blows you away, both the revelation and the two-hander.
John Huston, perhaps in his most well-known role in front of a camera, leaves an indelible impression as a seemingly harmless wealthy old man, but actually is a metaphor of what is sickly wrong in our modern society, self-seeking, double-faced, incestuous, callous, unrepentant, with an unhealthy attachment of his own bloodline, a high-profile addition along with the two excellent leads.
In all frankness, normally, the blunt exploitation of woman as an easy prey is a big turndown for my taste, but in this case, Polanski’s free pass is too big to fail and the film survives as his most renowned work ever since.