Director Roman Polanski’s finest two hours take the Chandleresque mystery into bizarre byways and deep psychological territory, with Jack Nicholson’s jaded private eye Jake Gittes (named after Jack Nicholson’s friend, producer Harry Gittes) led by a neurotic femme fatale (Faye Dunaway), and even more dangerous self-delusion, into a maelstrom of greed, murder and incest in the mean streets and orange groves of 1930’s Los Angeles.
Ironically, the title may be somewhat misleading as the only time an audience actually gets to Chinatown is during the explosive finale, yet all the time a foreboding nastiness about this specific zone in LA is made reference to as past experience Gittes would rather forget.
Nicholson’s performance is, to say the least, flawless as a man about to uncover dirty politics and conspiracy underneath the guise of a simple infidelity case.
So too the attention to detail and atmospherics care of the soon to be outcast Polanski (four years later he would flee the USA to avoid charges of raping a 13-year-old girl), lasting forever in the memory via a nasty cameo in which he slits our leading man’s nose.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, yet only walking away with one (Original Screenplay), Chinatown is what all cinematic delivery is ever trying to achieve: interesting characters developing throughout an engrossing scenario.
Polanski famously fell out with screenwriter Robert Towne when he scrapped the original ending – in which Faye Dunaway’s character is allowed to escape – and decided to think up a new one himself.
Even though he wasn’t sure yet what it would be he told production designer Richard Sylbert to build a set of a street in Chinatown. He’d work the rest out later . . .
And sure enough, it’s on this street in the finished movie that Dunaway’s character is shot through the eye as she tries to escape, allowing violence and corruption to triumph.
J.J. “Jake” Gittes
Man with Knife