|A few weeks back, I wrote about my all-time favorite movie, “Barry Lyndon.”
In the next few columns, give or take, I will focus on the other four in my Top 5.
Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown,” has been described and ranked as one of the greatest films ever made. Produced by none other than Robert Evans and Paramount Pictures, it garnered 11 Academy Award nominations.
It is a throwback to Film Noir pictures, which is to say it is a hardboiled crime drama like those championed by “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.”
Truthfully, it took me at least three watches before I understood it.
“Chinatown” is set in Los Angeles in 1937, before the City of Angels developed into the Mecca that we know it as today.
In the 1930s, L.A. was a city on the move. Developers built the first highways and sought to bring water to the California desert in an effort to capitalize and raise the cost of the cheap land close to the West Coast.
It is upon this backdrop that we meet J.J. Gittes, a successful but loathed private eye played by Jack Nicholson, who is charged with the task of investigating a possible affair of L.A.’s Chief Engineer of Water and Power Hollis Mulwray.
When Mulwray, an already unpopular public figure, is found dead in a reservoir in a seemingly cut and dry case, Gittes thinks his work is finished.
Like every other great mystery, nothing could be farther from the truth.
After giving up on the case, Gittes receives a visit from Mulwray’s wife. Having never seen the woman before, the investigator realizes the woman who hired him to trail her so-called husband was not Mulwray’s wife but an impostor.
Facing legal action by the engineer’s ridiculously wealthy widow, “Jake” has to use his wits to unravel the truth and save his career. The deeper Gittes becomes involved in the case, the less he understands.
During his inquiries he realizes someone is dumping large amounts of fresh water into the Pacific Ocean and the real Mrs. Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway, eventually forgives Jake and hires him to reveal the truth about what happened to her husband and the woman he was supposedly seeing on the side.
What he finds is a hornet’s nest full of intrigue, deception, and one of the biggest plot twists ever found in the history of American film.
Originally conceived as a three-part set of films about corruption in the founding of Los Angeles, only two films were made. “The Two Jakes,” directed by Nicholson in 1990, to a lesser acclaim albeit a similar sense of honor, followed “Chinatown.”
Arguments on the set were legendary, with Roman Polanski continuously fighting with both Nicholson and Dunaway.
Rumors also persisted that Dunaway refused to flush her own toilet and that Polanski smashed the TV set in Nicholson’s trailer when he refused to show up on set due to a Laker’s game.
Producer Robert Evans actively sought out Polanski to shoot the film after the duo’s success with “Rosemary’s Baby.” It turned out to be the last film Polanski filmed in the United States due to him being accused of statutory rape in 1977.
Retreating to Europe afterward, never to return to the states again, Polanski was celebrated for the dark sensibility of the film. He later said it ended so darkly due to the untimely murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family a few years earlier.
Evans stated he hired the director for precisely this reason.
One of the most famous scenes in the film revolves around Jake investigating the reservoir in which Mulwray’s body was found late at night and being caught by two goons.
Polanski, in a cameo role, takes a switchblade and slashes Jake’s nose open by a few centimeters. The scene was pulled off with a special blade that would have truly cut the actor’s nose had it been used carelessly. The director can be seen constantly turning the blade so that Nicholson showed true fear in the shot.
According to many sources, the two got so tired of explaining the complicated scene to colleagues and fans that they maintained that Nicholson’s nose was actually cut.
In addition to the fame of the movie, so followed the great line about Jake’s past as a police offer in Chinatown.
Early in the film he is asked what he did in his past as a police officer there.
His reply, “as little as possible,” stemmed from the numerous dialects in the area keeping the police from understanding whether they were helping the residents or hurting them, so that the best course of action was to do nothing.
Although Jake understood this well, it wasn’t until the end of the story that it truly rang home.
I love many things about this film, but the fact that it doesn’t all come together until the exact end with a single line and tragedy makes it amazing.