When people say ‘They don’t make ’em like they used to,’ that usually means: they never did. On release, Chinatown was praised as a throwback to the attitude and style of classic Hollywood noir, despite being driven by a significantly deeper, darker vision than Bogart ever battled.
Even today, taken for granted as a masterpiece of ’70s Hollywood, it’s worth bearing in mind how few of Chinatown’s peers matched its political intelligence, narrative rigour and dramatic wallop. It was a one-off, a perfect storm of talent at the peak of their powers. The lynchpin is Robert Towne’s screenplay, rightly acknowledged as one of cinema’s finest.
Really, despite the common currency of private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), it is two films intertwined, the fascinating real-life plotline about Los Angeles’ water supply framing the tragedy of Faye Dunaway’s femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray. Of course, the two are macro and micro reflections of the same tale of power, corruption and lies. It’s testament to Towne’s masterful orchestration, a gradual drip-drip of clues and revelations that events play out seamlessly.
Towne wrote the screenplay for buddy Nicholson, who relishes the prospect of using his counter-cultural cheekiness to play a beacon of integrity. It’s easy to forget, given the film’s pessimism, that Nicholson is frequently hilarious – but the humour is a weapon against us, Nicholson’s grin collapsing come the devastating ending.
Producer Robert Evans, hot off The Godfather, foregoes grand gestures in favour of the simple approach: hire amazing talent and let them get on with it. There’s a delicate balance throughout between Hollywood glamour and seedy reality: how costume designer Anthea Sylbert’s sharp suits are offset by nosy Nicholson’s ugly plaster; the contrast between elegiac horns and discordant pianos in Jerry Goldsmith’s score; the unspeakable horrors hidden in cinematographer John A. Alonzo’s dazzling sunlight.
And then there’s Roman Polanski: an apt choice to direct, given his tumultuous life experience, but it’s worth emphasising how subtly he turns the screws. Freeze-frame any image and it looks like a typical prestige piece, but Polanski deploys lurching camerawork or holds shots a beat too long to create a sense of unease. Crucially, the signature shot of Nicholson surveying his surroundings, the perfect P.I., is framed from behind: no matter what Gittes sees, he doesn’t see everything.
Sadly, that policy extends to this Blu-ray. In America, buyers were spoiled with new documentaries and über-fan David Fincher joining Towne on commentary duties. Over here? A booklet. It’s tempting to say, “Forget it, Jake.”