December 14, 2012
Chinatown (1974)
Grade: 97/100

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

What it's about. An uncommonly well made murder mystery and detective movie set in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Hard edged Jack Nicholson is a private eye whose specialty is matrimony cases. He is hired by Diane Ladd to confirm her husband, Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is having an affair.

Mulwray turns out to be a nerdy middle-aged man. He is also the city water commissioner, and opposes an ambitious dam proposal backed by powerful land interests. Nicholson manages to photograph Mulwray with an attractive young woman, Belinda Palmer. He apparently turns the photos over to Ladd, who publishes them in the newspaper to smear Mulwray.

It turns out that Ladd is an imposter hired by Mulwray opponents. Mulwray's real wife, Faye Dunaway, turns up in Nicholson's office, outraged at his behavior. Meanwhile, Mulwray commits suicide, or is it murder? The immediate beneficiary is smug executive John Hillerman, who is promoted into Mulwray's plum office.

Dunaway hires Nicholson to investigate her husband's death, and to keep Nicholson from unraveling Dunaway's shocking family secret. Nicholson is also hired by Dunaway's wealthy father, John Huston. Huston was Mulwray's former business partner, but he doesn't care about Mulwray's death. Instead, he is obsessed with locating Mulwray's missing girlfriend, Palmer.

Nicholson's fearless investigation gets him into big trouble with the same heavies who presumably murdered Mulwray: thug Roy Jenson and knife-wielding Roman Polanski (also the film's director, of course). They protect a land scheme to buy orange groves for pennies on the dollar from their drought-stricken owners, then strike it rich when the city supplies cheap water provided by the new dam.

Once it becomes clear that Mulwray was murdered, the police are on the case, led by lieutenant Perry Lopez. There is bad blood between Nicholson and Lopez dating back to Nicholson's stint as a cop in Chinatown. Lopez tries to frame Nicholson's client Dunaway for the murder.

How others will see it. Chinatown was widely acclaimed upon release. Nicholson was already highly regarded from Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Polanski's reputation was also excellent due to Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion.

Chinatown was a box office hit and nominated for 11 major Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Nicholson), and Best Actress (Dunaway). It won only for Robert Towne's screenplay, mostly because it had the bad luck of competing against the second best movie from the 1970s, The Godfather Part II. The best film from the 1970s was, of course, Chinatown.

A belated sequel, The Two Jakes was released in 1990 to a poor reception, similar to that of The Godfather Part III, which came out the same year. Studios never learn when to leave a franchise alone.

But the reputation of Chinatown has only improved over the years. Today at it has a whopping 120K user votes and a lofty, consistent user rating of 8.4. Internet discussion is centered on discerning the involved plot. The quality of the movie is seldom challenged.

How I felt about it. Since Towne's script received the film's sole Oscar, in competition against the remarkable Godfather Part II, Towne has perhaps received too much credit for the movie. As have Nicholson and Dunaway, though they were perfectly cast and gave marvelous performances.

The principal credit goes to Polanski, who directed the movie and went over the script line by line with Towne, making improvements. The film works because the director believed in its theme, the venal injustice of greedy businessmen who operate above and outside of the law. No matter what evil John Huston has committed, he is completely safe except for the moment when Dunaway points a gun at his head.

Money wins, the people lose. If the moral is familiar, it is also effective, when presented in the form of crafty John Huston, better known as the director of such masterpieces as The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Nicholson blunders about in the dark, risking his life to uncover the conspiracy but finding a force field around Huston that protects him from punishment.

Ultimately, what makes Huston so evil, and what gives the story such depth, is that Huston is not only trying to swindle some orange growers. That isn't why he killed Mulwray. He wants possession of his daughter / granddaughter, perhaps to do to her what he did to Dunaway.