Posted by: benherst | October 16, 2009

“Chinatown” Movie Review

Chinatown Review

            Loosely following the script of Los Angeles history, “Chinatown” is a dark and peculiar synthesis of the blunt edge of classic politics with the sharpness of personal feuds.  In director Roman Polanski’s last American-made film, Jack Nicholson brilliantly plays the tough-as-nails private detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes.  An archetypal film noir, the plot grows out of an elaborate maze of crime, sex, heart, vice, and heroism, merging to form a thrilling – yet tragic – masterpiece.  Stuck with the task of sorting out reality amid deception, Gittes must trace an intricate path in order to discern an answer.

            Set in 1937 Los Angeles, “Chinatown” follows the geopolitical clash among natural-resource titans Hollis Mulwray (played by Darrell Zwerling and inspired by William Mulholland, a chief player in the California Water Wars) and Noah Cross (John Huston).  Gittes enters the picture when he is hired as a private eye to follow Mulwray.  Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), is also drawn in, as she suspects Mulwray of cheating on her, yet she denies ever hiring Gittes.  Nevertheless, the situation turns fishy when Mulwray is found dead and Gittes secretly discovers several discontinuities on the water (and land) resources front.  Ultimately, the plotline takes on an increasingly nuanced and textured dimension – a sensual interpretation of suspicion and cloaked verity.

            Shot in a plainly straightforward fashion, “Chinatown” features Jake Gittes in every scene, an odd concept.  As is true for the plurality of Polanski’s films, the camera angles are rarely irregular or elaborate.  Furthermore, Polanski’s unflinching cinematic bluntness provides the viewer with a window through which to interpret the progressively convoluted plot.  Characteristic of film noir style, the movie often features subdued lighting – the shadowy shots complimenting the films mysterious disposition.  In the background, blaring trumpets set the tone for suspense, hinting at the inevitable.

            True to his style, Polanski approaches the film from a fundamentally direct position.  However, what “Chinatown” lacks in cinematic flair and panache, it makes up for in its dramatic storyline and sophisticated character relations.  These two traits anchor the film’s thrilling sequence, providing a truly obscure, yet plausible circumstance.

            Eventually, the movie follows the cast of characters to Los Angeles’ Chinatown district. Considering the underlying elements of the film’s conflict, Chinatown seems to be an apt backdrop.  Specifically, Chinatown represents a location and mentality where deceit and corruption rage for the sake of advancement.  From the water feuds to the taboos of incest and infidelity, the film “Chinatown” associates with the shady and inscrutable thrill of geographical Chinatown.


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