Polanski's labyrinthine state-of-the-nation noir remains as caustic, daring and horrifically shocking as it did in 1974.
Mysterious, exotic, treacherous – the Chinatown of Roman Polanski’s peerless 1974 proto/neo-noir throwback is, just like the film itself, less of a physical presence than a state of mind. It’s a lurid fantasy. An ultimately intangible maelstrom of deceit, regret and confusion in which the only thing you can be sure of is that everything you know is – to one degree or another – wrong.
It’s Los Angeles, 1937 and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) runs a successful private investigations firm. He’s looked down on by the law and treated as something of a sordid but necessary evil by his clients, but Jake realises that’s just how the game is played. Soon enough, though, one of those clients finds a way to use Jake’s scurrilous reputation to set him up for a fall. His ensuing attempts to clear his name put him on the trail of a case that’s bigger, more complex and wide-ranging than anything he’s used to. One that goes, as they say, all the way to the top.
It’s an simple, ironclad private eye procedural template from which the filmmakers construct one of the most intricate, layered, perfectly balanced films of American cinema’s ‘Golden’ ’70s'. Robert Towne’s compelling, progressive script is one of the more labyrinthine, daring and – admittedly, only after a few viewings – coherent pieces of writing ever to make its way to the screen.
Director Polanski – just as he had done with Rosemary’s Baby – casts an outsider’s eye over a familiar genre and creates a vibrant, living world for his characters to inhabit. Yet its one that never gets unduly bogged down by tiresome period detail.
It was he, too, who altered the last scene of the film from Towne’s Hollywood Ending to the darker, subtler, enigmatic finale that still troubles us even now. After Vietnam and Watergate, America might have needed a happy ending or two, but Polanski knew better than to sugar this particularly astringent pill.
In his Gangs Of New York, Martin Scorsese informed us that America was born in the streets. It’s a catchy tagline, and maybe true 'back east', but out in the in the grand, untapped wilds of California, its birth was tortuous, staggered and secretive. Less blood, but a lot more pain. And it might be just a state of mind, but Chinatown still retains the power to bruise and scar to this day.
It's long been deemed one of the American greats.
Only an outsider like Polanski could take down the founding myth of America with such withering grace.
See this film as many times as you can. Please.