Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company
I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character. I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all. But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist. With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.
Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story. Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases. The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.
Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles. Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel. It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).
I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set. A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.
Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.