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Chinatown Is Still a Thrilling, Clear-eyed Portrayal of the Arrogance of Power

Important, controversial, and incredibly influential, this contentious classic remains as chilling as it was in the 1970s.

Written by Chrishaun Baker

Los Angeles. Tinseltown. La-la-land. The City of Dreams and the City of Angels. For almost as long as filmmakers have pointed cameras to tell stories, they’ve been fascinated by LA and its twinkling lights, larger-than-life stars, and fairy-tale atmosphere.

But no fairy tale can exist without the reflection of reality, which is what screenwriter Robert Towne discovered when he set out to write a film that would recreate the 1940s LA of his childhood. In his attempt to hearken back to a simpler, cleaner time, Towne discovered the ugly side of LA he missed as a child, a true history obscured by the blinding lights, in which the power-hungry and the depraved governed the desperate masses. So begat 1974’s Chinatown, one of the most finely written pieces of American cinema ever made; a masterpiece that, both in its execution and complicated existence, reflects the grimy edges of a society obsessed with power and influence.

With a simple enough premise, Chinatown evokes the gumshoe-detective noirs of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a former beat cop turned private investigator, is hired by a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s infidelity. The only problem is that Mrs. Mulwray isn’t actually Mrs. Mulwray, and by the time he meets the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), Jake finds himself knee-deep in a conspiracy of murder, corruption, and bone-chilling evil. Although the characters and initial setup are creations of Towne’s imagination, the true conflict at the heart of the movie – the struggle for control over LA’s water supply during the city’s formative years – was very real.

After starting tentative research, Towne discovered a book called Southern California Country: Island on the Land, which covered the rise and fall of William Mulholland, the Irish immigrant who became chief engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power. Mulholland oversaw construction on the Owens Valley aqueduct in 1908, which effectively stole water from residents and rerouted it to the San Fernando Valley. Mulholland’s underhanded methods were in service of his stone-faced determination to build the LA that we know today, but that same determination was partially responsible for the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, which killed over 430 people. Towne’s fascination with Mulholland would eventually become the beating heart of the film, as Mulholland’s legacy and the tooth-and-nail struggle for LA’s water became crucial plot points.

From the very beginning, Towne envisioned Jack Nicholson as Gittes, and if you know the history of the genre it’s easy to see why. Nicholson comes alive with the kind of swagger you’d find in a Raymond Chandler hero, all roguish wit and perceptive gaze, but he also grants us a peek behind the walls of noir’s typically hyper-masculine male leads. Gittes is boisterous and crass, but he’s also deeply wounded, and insecure about the ethics of his job. There’s little of the explosive intensity that would come to define some of his iconic roles. This works in the movie’s favor, giving even more deference to an incredibly magnetic performance by Faye Dunaway.

Don’t get too attached to Nicholson’s nose.

Paramount Pictures

While Jane Fonda was initially considered, it’s nearly impossible to think of anyone else capturing both Evelyn’s self-composed grace and the mysterious trepidation keeping her at arm’s length. Dunaway evokes the mysterious allure and seedy moral flexibility of the femme fatales of old, but rejects their shallow misogyny in favor of a fully-realized interiority that bursts out of Evelyn with every wistful glance or anxious slip of the tongue. The fact that so much of the nuance of her performance was initially overlooked due to the juvenile antics of the film’s director is a shame.

It’s impossible to talk about Chinatown without talking about the long shadow left behind by the disgraced Roman Polanski. Producer Robert Evans encouraged Polanski’s involvement, as he felt the filmmaker’s darker European style would create a more cynical Los Angeles. Indeed, the final film is a vision of a vibrant city smothered in shadow and choked by gloom. Water, synonymous not only with life but death, looms in the foreground, the background, and even in Jerry Goldsmith’s hypnotic score like some menacing stalker. But if Polanski brought any darkness to the film, it was a darkness that LA had already revealed to him: Chinatown was released just five years after the murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family.

Dunaway’s performance, underappreciated upon release, is simply sublime.

Paramount Pictures

It’s Polanski himself, who fled to Paris in 1978 after the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, who threatens to taint the film’s legacy. Chinatown was the last movie he directed in the United States, and it’s both painfully ironic and damningly true-to-life that it’s a movie about how easy it is for corruption to win unchallenged. Since escaping to Paris, Polanski has gone on to direct 14 features, many of them met with critical acclaim, while continuing to receive support from prominent figures within the filmmaking community. His seeming untouchability makes it all the more infuriating to know that Chinatown’s devastating final scene, perhaps one of the most nakedly honest depictions of institutional rot in cinematic history, was the culmination of a vicious debate with Robert Towne over how the film should end, a debate Polanski won when Towne left the production.

Despite the black mark Polanski’s involvement has left on the film, Chinatown is perhaps best remembered for how it comes together as an incredibly cohesive whole despite him. When he refused to give Dunaway direction, she dug her heels in and delivered one of the greatest performances in film history. It was John A. Alonzo who captured moral decay through his camera’s lens, even when he wasn’t Polanski’s initial choice, and despite only having 10 days to finish the soundtrack, it was Jerry Goldsmith who crafted a perfect lullaby for the City of Dreams. And at the heart of it all is Robert Towne, a writer who took a microscope to the memories of his childhood, rendered systemic corruption in Shakesperean ideals of good and evil, and made cinema history in the process.

Chinatown is streaming on HBO Max through January 31.

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