By Daniella Nichinson, Film Editor
A private eye finds himself entangled in an intricate plot of murder, deception and corruption in drought-ridden 1937 Los Angeles. This is Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”—a complicated and brilliant portrait of power and secrets.
Hollywood has a complex history of its portrayal of Chinatown on screen. Presenting it as an exotic and esoteric place, films often leaned into stereotypes. The Metrograph will be showcasing those films that provided Chinatown and its actors with a platform for representation, in its series “Imaginary Chinatown.”
J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private detective who investigates extramarital affairs. One day, a woman named Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray asks him to trail her husband, Hollis. This seemingly routine case sends Gittes spiraling down a hole of deception, where he discovers the body of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of L.A.’s water department, and the identity of the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) along with her deplorable father, Noah Cross (played by venerable Golden Age filmmaker, John Huston). What follows is a succession of lies that work to derail Gittes and cover up a secret that eclipses the entire city.
At the heart of the film are the two powerhouse performances by its leads, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. They captivate the screen, delivering emotions of agony, disappointment and pure sadness. In true noir fashion, Nicholson is in every scene of the film, a task that could only be assumed by an actor of his caliber. It’s fascinating to watch his character slowly learn the extent of his cluelessness, only to realize that there is nothing left to do.
Robert Towne’s script is hailed as the finest screenplay ever written. It’s unbelievably smart, gripping, nimble and horrifying—a true masterpiece. It is an homage to the detective flicks of ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood, a love letter to the film noir genre. It succeeds in being nostalgic, but also innovative, which is why “Chinatown” has persisted as an immortal classic over the last 40 years.
There is a sheer beauty to “Chinatown” that prevails despite the somber and brooding atmosphere inherent to the plot. With expanses of desert on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the setting offers breathtaking shots in wide frames, enveloping the audience in its endless horizon.
In the story, Chinatown serves only as a metaphor for Gittes’ past. Its meaning, however, is never revealed—it exists in a haunting haze, clouded by memories and trauma. The mystery shrouding Chinatown brings monumental power to the film’s denouement and the chill-inducing final five words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
“Chinatown” is a journey through the eyes of J.J. Gittes; the audience knows nothing more than he does, leaving them in just as much confusion as him. The clues are there to be deciphered, but with every twist, the answer moves farther and farther away. With one of the most complicated and elaborate plots in cinema history, “Chinatown” must be commended for its peerless contribution to the detective genre and its extraordinary finale of tragedy and betrayal.
“Imaginary Chinatown” will be showing at the Metrograph at 7 Ludlow St. from Sep. 29 – Oct. 9.
Email Daniella Nichinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.