“Chinatown” is an outstanding picture. Robert Towne’s complex but literate and orderly screenplay takes gumshoe Jack Nicholson on a murder manhunt all over the Los Angeles of 35 years ago, where Faye Dunaway, also above the title, is the wife of a dead city official. Roman Polanski’s American made film, first since “Rosemary’s Baby” shows him again in total command of talent and physical filmmaking elements.
Richard Sylbert’s production design is magnificent. The Paramount release, first to bear the producing credit of production chief Robert Evans, has money written all over it, and strong word of mouth should easily overcome any misconceptions suggested by the title.
Towne, whose most recent credit was the sensational adaptation of “The Last Detail,” in which Nicholson’s performance also was superb, has mixed a lot of period L.A. fact with some spicy fiction. The factual details – the procurement of water supplies for the Southern California area, profitable land acquisitions by knowledgeable insiders, etc. – may rattle a lot of civic skeletons in the closets of first families. It is easy to speak of Los Angeles admittedly prairie metropolis morality and behavior, but it must be remembered that the swindles and corruption and capers of the latterday pioneers rank with the worst in municipal rape.
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Towne, director Roman Polanski and Nicholson have fashioned a sort of low-key Raymond Chandler hero who, with assistants Joe Mantell and Bruce Glover, specializes in matrimonial infidelities. When Diane Ladd, posing as Dunaway, commissions a job on Darrell Zwerling, the city’s water commissioner (named Hollis Mulwray, for those who might recognize a similarity to the name Mulholland), Nicholson becomes involved in a series of interlocking schemes.
He is in disfavor with the local police (Perry Lopez and Dick Bakalyan), hounded by goons (Roy Jenson and Polanski, in a bit role) in the employ of John Huston, and partially conned by Dunaway despite a romantic vibration between the two.
The many plot angles including a very discreet development of incest, eventually converge in Chinatown for a climactic shootout which, at fadeout, will likely be papered over as a typical ghetto incident, the kind of event that respectable people never hear about. The phrase “Chinatown” is thus used in a cynical context (not unlike U.S. Marines when they say “semper FI”), and has meaning only after the film is over.
Nicholson’s performance is excellent, and for Dunaway this is her best part in years. Huston’s crotchety old character delineation works well, and among the very large, expertly selected cast, John Hillerman delivers a great performance of polite menace. Besides Polanski, associate producer C.O. (Doc) Erickson also does a bit.
Sylbert’s production design hasn’t missed a trick in recreating the period. And the most gratifying aspect is that the audience is never insulted by overemphasis on period. There’s absolutely no offensive showoff of the nostalgia; the clothes, cars, houses, etc. are simply part of the scenes. Considering the enormous logistical effort involved, there must have been fleeting temptations to lingering shots of sporty cars and the like, but thankfully any such urges were resisted.
Jerry Goldsmith, who is one of the best, and genuine, film composers currently active, contributed a fine score. Since Raymond Chandler’s world is the world of this film, film buffs will likely conjure up memories of “The Big Sleep.” Goldsmith’s score is as evocative and dramatic in this film as Max Steiner’s was for “Sleep.” A handful of period poptunes also are interpolated with good discretion.
John A. Alonzo’s Panivision-Technicolor cinematography is excellent. Sam O’Steen was editor of the 130 minute film, a rare example of a picture that sustains interest throughout an above average duration.
The film opens with the old black & white Paramount trademark, and the titles are done in the old style script on a neutral background. The small print in the credits indicates that the film’s copyright rests in an entity known as Long Road Productions; that “production services (were) furnished by Freedom Service Co.,” and that it is a Paramount-Penthouse Presentation. All of these relate to the tax shelter syndicate structure by which about 25% of the film’s $3,200,000 cost was sold to investors for about 10% of the profits.
There has been a lot of advance interest by the trade in this film. It lives up to the bruited expectations.
1974: Best Original Screenplay.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Faye Dunaway), Cinematography, Costume Design, Art Direction, Editing, Original Dramatic Score, Sound