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Should I Watch..? 'Chinatown' (1974)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Promotional poster

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What's the Big Deal?

Chinatown is a contemporary noir mystery film released in 1974, created from Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay, considered by some to be the greatest screenplay of all time. The last film directed by Roman Polanski within the US, the film stars Jack Nicholson as a private investigator in 1930s Los Angeles who finds himself dragged into a conspiracy of sex, murder, mistaken identity and corruption. The film also stars Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez and Diane Ladd. Almost universally hailed by critics, who frequently cite the film as one of the best of all time, the film earned $29.2 million in the US and received numerous awards and nominations, including 11 Academy Awards. It was selected for preservation in 1991 at the National Film Registry for its cultural, historic and aesthetic significance. It would be followed by a sequel The Two Jakes in 1990 which failed to match its predecessor's success.


What's It About?

In 1937, the city of Los Angeles is suffering through a drought and some people are looking for solutions including the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power with some believing that a new reservoir is required. Across town, private detective JJ "Jake" Gittes is hired by a woman called Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband Hollis who happens to be the LADPW's chief engineer. Gittes tails Hollis for a while and hears him claim in public that a new reservoir would be unsafe. Later on, Gittes spots Hollis with a mysterious young woman and decides to shoot some photos of the meeting.

As he returns to his office, Gittes is confronted by a woman claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulwray who warns him that he can expect a lawsuit soon. Realising that Hollis may be danger, Gittes soon discovers that Hollis has just been fished out of an existing reservoir, having drowned in it. Gittes decides to investigate the murder of Hollis Mulwray and quickly wishes that he hadn't as the deeper he digs, the more danger he finds himself in...


What's to Like?

Fans of more traditional film noir like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep will be in familiar territory here as everything about the film has absorbed their smoky influence. In essence, this is no different to any of those earlier films except its in colour. The film looks immaculate with costumes, sets and props feeling as though they've been found in the corner of a backlot somewhere, dusted off and simply shot as is. The story also reeks of a classic noir conspiracy with private investigators out of their depth, glamorous femme fatales bewitching our hero with their sex appeal and, of course, cigarette smoke filling the screen. I loved just watching the film because I have an admiration for noir and felt very much at home.

Nicholson delivers one of the best performances of his career as Gittes, toning that explosive mania of his down just enough to be a calm and largely controlled focal point for the film. You feel that he's been playing the part all his life and I can't think of anyone else who could the role better. But every bit as essential to the film's success is Dunaway who instantly goes into the Hall Of Fame for deadly, bewitching women. Her character may be a little too archetypal but I loved her performance, moving and speaking like Barbara Stanwyck or Mary Astor in those black-and-white classics. Even Polanski's cameo as a knife-wielding henchman fits perfectly because who'd be better to play a rat-faced, weasley thug hiding behind a thin veneer of power?

Nicholson simply owns the picture as the Marlowe-esque private detective struggling to piece the puzzle together as well as avoiding further physical punishment.

Nicholson simply owns the picture as the Marlowe-esque private detective struggling to piece the puzzle together as well as avoiding further physical punishment.

Fun Facts

  • The set was witness to some awkward moments between the cast and crew including Nicholson and Huston (Nicholson had begun his long-standing relationship with Huston's daughter Anjelica around the time of filming). Dunaway and Polanski also had a number of fiery arguments on set with the director pulling strands of her hair out on one occasion. Polanski also destroyed Nicholson's TV in his trailer as he was often late to the set watching his beloved LA Lakers play basketball.
  • The film was inspired by the real-life California Water Wars, a series of disputes over ownership of water in southern California at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • There is a rumour that this was the first part of a trilogy of films featuring JJ "Jake" Gittes and the city of LA. The second part was filmed as The Two Jakes while the unfinished third film was never written, according to Towne. However, elements of the third film involved a corrupt company called Cloverleaf buying up public transport companies in order to build freeways—a central premise behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was a spoof of films like Chinatown.
  • Producer Robert Evans deliberately chose Polanski to direct despite the fact that his previous two films—1971's Macbeth and the lesser-known What?—were failures. Evans believed that Polanski would be determined to make the film a hit and he did.

What's Not to Like?

If you're new to film noir then you might not expect a labyrinthine plot that twists and turns like a snake held up by its tail. Word of warning—you might need a couple of viewings to fully follow the film but being honest, I've seen film noir be more confusing than Chinatown. You can't even criticise Polanski for the film, however easy it is to criticise Polanski the man. The film is not responsible for the choices the director would go on to make so if you can seperate the man from the film, it becomes much easier to enjoy. The film also shares much of the cynicism and nihilism associated with film noir so anyone expecting a happy ending should probably stick with a Disney film.

The only reason I can think why anyone would dislike this film would be if they personally felt that film noir was not to be taken seriously as an art-form, as though it was an overly dramatic or cliched medium. If I'm honest then yes, it is but that's precisely why I love it. Flawed heroes fighting against both the system and unseen shadowy forces, flirtatious women with shifting motivations and loyalties, the period setting, impossibly complex narratives, the lighting which hints at the choices a character is faced with—to me, it's the most complete form of cinema and while it may be formulaic for some, I enjoy the familiarity and conventions of the genre. Chinatown isn't just one of the best mysteries written for the screen but also a stunning revival of a genre that had been dormant since the late Fifties. What's not to like indeed?

Dunaway (right) is deliberately reminiscent of legendary femme fatales of the past like Lauren Bacall and fits perfectly into the style of the picture.

Dunaway (right) is deliberately reminiscent of legendary femme fatales of the past like Lauren Bacall and fits perfectly into the style of the picture.

Should I Watch It?

One of the most perfectly complete pictures I've ever seen and one which seems to be sadly overlooked these days (possibly due to the Polanski connection), I have no hesitation in recommending Chinatown to anyone and everyone. It manages to recreate the style and atmosphere of timeless film noir but offers a new and interesting story that will captivate throughout. Nicholson and Dunaway are both just magnificent in this film which should be an essential watch for anybody with even a passing interest in the history and crafting of cinema.

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Great For: aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters, fans of film noir, mystery lovers

Not So Great For: younger viewers, the inattentive, anyone dismissing Polanski's entire career

What Else Should I Watch?

Anyone looking for a true film noir should focus on films mostly made in the 1940s and 1950s with some of the best examples being The Big Sleep, the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice and John Huston's directorial debut The Maltese Falcon, often claimed to be noir's first 'hit'. There are certainly no shortage of noir films that have influenced a number of other films and genres such as Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner or the London crime film Mona Lisa. Perhaps the most famous neo noir was Kathleen Turner's electric debut in Body Heat alongside William Hurt as scheming lovers plotting to kill Turner's husband, Richard Crenna.

Robert Towne, who secured the film's only Oscar for his screenplay, has enjoyed a long and successful writing career and is still regarded as one of the best writers film has ever employed. Among his works are films like Mission: Impossible and its bombastic sequel, Days Of Thunder, the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, and The Last Detail which also starred Jack Nicholson. He also worked uncredited on scripts for The Godfather, The Parallax View, Marathon Man and Crimson Tide among others. Like I said, not a bad resume to have...

Main Cast


Jack Nicholson

JJ "Jake" Gittes

Faye Dunaway

Evelyn Mulwray

John Huston

Noah Cross

Perry Lopez

Lt. Lou Escobar

John Hillerman

Russ Yelburton

Darrell Zwerling

Hollis Mulwray

Diane Ladd

Ida Sessions

Roy Jenson

Claude Mulvihill

Technical Info

DirectorRoman Polanski


Robert Towne

Running Time

130 minutes

Release Date (UK)

9th August, 1974




Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Academy Awards

Best Original Screenplay

Academy Award Nominations

Best Picture, Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Dunaway), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Set Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

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Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on April 21, 2020:

Thanks for reading!

Noel Penaflor from California on April 15, 2020:

One of my favorite movies of all time. I try to see it every couple of years. Thanks for the review.

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on April 01, 2020:

Thanks for the recommendation. I have a vague recollection of watching it years ago and I enjoyed it.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 31, 2020:

Another great contemporary npir is Gone Baby Gone, where a pair of private detectives investigate claims of a child abduction, and find the case testing their partnership as they learn what has happened. It was a great directorial debut from Ben Affleck, with brother Casey playing one of the lead roles.

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