Monday, June 27, 2011

Flick of The Day: Chinatown

So here we are, my favourite film of all time. Perfection is a strong word but in terms of cinema, today's flick of the day is as close to  perfection as is possible in a full length feature in the modern era. A towering central performance, a director on top form and a legendary screenwriter, this film is the sum of its parts. A dark and disturbing journey into life and corruption in sun drenched 1930's Los Angeles. Forget it Jake, It's Chinatown.
Jake Gittes, a superb Jack Nicholson, is a private eye who specialises in catching out cheating spouses. A former cop, he has a sharp eye and a quick tongue. One day he is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband Holles, whom she suspects of infidelity. Holles is Chief Engineer in the Water department. As Jake follows Holles around, he is intrigued to find him taking unexplained trips to various reservoirs and water tables. However, when he photographs Holles in the company of a young girl, he figures his job is done. However it quickly becomes apparent that Jake is in over his head when the real Mrs Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway turns up and had nothing to do with hiring Jake and Holles turns up dead. Going against his own gut, he decides he has to get to the bottom of a tangled web involving shady land deals, corrupt bureaucracy, orange farmers and Evelyn's father, an ageing land baron called Noah Cross, played by the incomparable John Huston. A dark and shocking finale ensues, in which Jake is forced to fight against forces he is powerless to stop and has to confront his own past in Chinatown.
A powerful film even today, the real crux of its success is to marry the kind of classic screen noir of the 1930's and 40's with a pessimistic critique of capitalist and bureaucratic structures that began to seep into American cinema in the post Watergate 70's. A great script from Robert Towne marries these grand themes with a story of corruption and family deceit that is as old as Oedipus. It is packed with great quotable lines.

Jake Gittes: Mulvihill! What are you doing here? 
Mulvihill: They shut my water off. What's it to you? 
Jake Gittes: How'd you find out about it? You don't drink it; you don't take a bath in it... They wrote you a letter. But then you have to be able to read.

It would be a shame if this script were wasted on ropy acting and lazy direction. Thankfully, then these elements are equally strong. Nicholson gives a strong performance in a role that cemented his place as a star. Hollywood legend John Huston is equally adept as the malevolent Noah Crosss and his scenes with Nicholson are a treat. Roman Polanksi's direction is even paced and draws the best out of the cast and the script. Almost flawless.
The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards on its release in 1974, winning just the one for Robert Towne's brilliant script having had the misfortune of being made in the same year as The Godfather Part II. It's reputation has only grown in the intervening years, becoming something of a mythic beast such is the reputation of the likes of Towne, Polanski and Nicholson in terms of the 70's New Hollywood movement. It even spawned a vastly inferior sequel in 1990, The Two Jakes.

Jake Gittes: In Chinatown. 
Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there? 
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney. 
Evelyn Mulwray: Doing what? 
Jake Gittes: As little as possible. 
Evelyn Mulwray: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that? 
Jake Gittes: They do in Chinatown.

The film is relentlessly cynical in its outlook, something that is at the heart of film noir but in this case updated for a modern audience. This alone would have made the film memorable but the combination of this with a great story and the aforementioned talents of Nicholson et al raise this to another level.
Well, what else is there to say? This really is my favourite film of all time. It is as good as it gets on all fronts and really a must see for anyone with an interest in great cinema. Check it out.

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