Chinatown review: Cynical, foggy and beautiful. The birth of film noir.

As a teenage film lover, modern genres speak more to me. It stems more from a lack of exposure because let’s face it, beautiful art is sometimes forgotten…They get cast away to the bygone fabric and age of ages past. In the cinematic world, film noir is a genre of film characterized by cynicism, post-war disillusionment and hence, corruption and seedy intentions…think smoky jazz bars, a brewing conspiracy, tragic lovers, cops and baddies who are more grey than black and white. It’s modern cousin is neo-noir. I’m not gonna go into a whole deep discussion about the difference because I’m no expert, but I’ll soon be reviewing one of my favourite films which is possibly the best neo-noir film EVER.

For now though, I’ll be reviewing a noir classic, Chinatown. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out on so much. The beauty of such a film can only be experienced in the watching, but if you want a little teaser, here’s the main theme soundtrack 🙂

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a snapshot of life in L.A back in the day. Drawing inspiration from one of the famous legends about the water dam story revolving around William Mulholland, then chief superintendant of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Enter the main protagonist, Gittes, who is exceptionally portrayed by Jack Nicholson. He is a man driven by determination and his work revolves around something as questionable as the people who employ him. Chinatown is framed suspiciously, in a way that every character comes across as mildly shady and every gesture is to be thrown into doubt. It has a way of making you just as pessimistic as the art itself. Though Gittes might give off the vibes of an over-confident and assured snoop, one has to admire his search for truth where everything seems so devoid of it. This is my favourite Jack Nicholson performance because he plays a more subdued character with a lot of range. Every act is natural and unforced so there’s much to be admired here.

Then there’s the whole pack of characters who bring their own mysteries to the table. Gittes is almost forced into this, having been set up by someone and not knowing that his narrative is just a little speck in the grandeur of corruption. The charming Evelyn Mulray gets caught up in the thick of things when her husband is brutally drowned and dumped into the very heart of the monster itself; The water dam that seems to be at the centre of all conspiracy. Faye Dunaway is exceptional in this. I haven’t seen her much but her performance alone makes me ache with a heavy heart. Because after all, the world in Chinatown is run by a ruthless oligarchal machine; A force that affects all caught up in its whirlwind of money and power. For our central characters Gittes and Evelyn, they’re little fishes hopelessly caught in the flooding. Jazzy tunes and fantastic cinematography complete the aural and visual tone of a period symbolic of clandestine operations and dangerous dalliances.

What makes Chinatown so great? Chinatown is true film noir in its truest sense. It is highly sensitive to its place and time whilst providing a lasting look at character relationships. Ill-fated and inspiring, the investigative journeys that Gittes embark on not only provide snapshots of the illegality of his social environment, but also highlight his growing determination to get to the bottom of things. The movie underscores Gittes sense of justice which makes the ending all the more hard-hitting. Amidst the water dam projects, the suspicious flooding an drying of land, government bodies and wealthy businessmen, Chinatown is essentially about a few good people in a not so good time. With ordeals of their own like Gittes own experiences in Chinatown as a cop, even troubled pasts get thrown into the mix, creating an intoxicating mix of secrecy and truth.

Chinatown spying.JPG

In the end, Chinatown cements itself as one of the best, if not the best, original film noir ever imagined. Sexually charged, morally conflicted and destined for an ending befitting of it’s nature, Chinatown is one of the truest portrayals of greek drama in american film. It leaves you with the fact that forces of nature and man become too much for the everyman and woman to deal with, even well-intentions become subject to heart-breaking consequences. Whether redemption is found or not, the film urges you to look at what maketh the man…and look away from the cynicism of the era and the futility of justice. This film has irreparably moved me.

Rating: 10/10

 

 

 

 

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24 Comments Add yours

  1. Jay says:

    What a great, thoughtful review. Makes me want to run downstairs to grab my copy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Thanks Jay! How are you btw!
      Go gettit! What a great film right? Jack and Faye were perfect.

      Like

  2. katelon says:

    Great review and film. In spite of Polanski’s personal history, I love his films. His older films are just as amazing as his newer ones. He did one called Repulsion, which I’ve mentioned and a terrifying one called The Tenant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Woohoo 🙂 Ok, first time hearing them but I have to check them out! Yeah, the man had issues. And I could see it in Chinatown alone, there’s alot of repression and unresolved sexual tension going on with his characters 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. katelon says:

        Yes. Remember….his wife was brutally murdered by the Manson family. But sexual tension has been in his films from the beginning.

        Like

  3. bloggeray says:

    Wonderful review! Loved the way you discussed the themes of the movie.
    Chinatown is one of my all-time favourite films. All the performances are so brilliant and nuanced that you can’t stop being wowed! Add the fact that unlike traditional night-shot noir, this was a film shot in blinding daylight. The real darkness is in the hearts and motives of the character.
    I have one issue with the post though. Hope you don’t mind me saying this but this wasn’t the birth of film noir. Neo-noir? Maybe. But surely not film noir. That was a huge genre in the 40s and 50s with classics by the dozen.
    Fun fact : Chinatown’s screenplay is considered the greatest screenplay of all-time in Hollywood, winning the film its sole Oscar out of 11 nominations (it was up against The Godfather!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting 🙂 That means alot! Really? Well I can see why, its a great film. And that’s a very insightful point, which just goes to show how mysterious the film makes it’s characters to be.

      Hmm, I beg to differ. I don’t know what the exact differences are between the two, but Neo-noir is something more modern…more focused on the city decay. Alienation and the idea of the anti-heroic protagonist typifies neo-noir and include films like Taxi driver, Drive and Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler shows how neo-noir is more varied in scope, making noir out of media sensationalization which is a theme that film noir hardly builds itself upon. Neo-noir is also more violent.

      In my opinion, noir is sort of the classic type…that mainly revolves around the post-war period characterized by the surge in money and wealth…leading to characters forming shady trysts and having mysterious agendas. It’s mostly greek tragedy, with some sexual tension/repression…big corps and shady men…corruption and purity. Maybe it’s not the birth because it probably started a while back, but I still think Chinatown is true film noir.
      But I’d love to hear your take on this :))

      Ooh, damn, I think its better than the Godfather 2 though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. bloggeray says:

        Technically, neo-noir uses the same themes as film noir : troubled male lead, lots of smoking, shady characters, mostly shot in the dark with special emphasis on lighting to create a point and so on. The main difference is that the themes are updated to reflect modern sensibilities, like in the case of Nightcrawler. I’m sharing the link to Roger Ebert’s post on guide to film noir. Hopefully that’d clear the air :

        http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/a-guide-to-film-noir-genre

        My point was, you’ve used film noir in the title. Now I do accept that Chinatown is a perfect example of film noir but it wasn’t the first of that genre. The first film noir movies came in 40s I guess. So the birth of film noir, I’d beg to differ with that assessment.
        Regardless, the beauty of your post is unquestionable. Let’s hope we can have more such discussions and enjoy movies through each other’s posts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. jwforeva says:

        I don’t know, I mean I think its more than just reflecting the modern trend. Stylistically and thematically, I think there are differences. There are other critics work whom I’ve read that beg to differ with what Ebert is saying. Anyhow, even in Nightcrawler’s case, the true ‘tragedy’ you find in film noir isnt actually found with Gyllenhaal’s character, it’s actually on us. There are fundamental differences between the two but of course, that’s just what I think.

        Thanks for that discussion 🙂 Ok maybe not the birth, but definitely one of the best.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. bloggeray says:

        One of the best, you bet it is that! Great to have this discussion. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Janus says:

    Thank you for reminding me, I’ll put it on my watch list together with Casino, Raging Bull, and other neo-noir films.

    Jack Nicholson is my favorite actor too, so looking forward for this film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      No prob! Hope you enjoy it :))

      Like

  5. John Charet says:

    Great review 🙂 I love Chinatown 🙂 It is probably my second favorite Roman Polanski film after 1965’s Repulsion 🙂 This is one of those handful of films where every aspect from direction to performances to production values stand out. Whether it is the birth of film noir or neo-noir is another question, but you got everything right in this review and who can forget Robert Towne’s memorable Oscar-winning dialogue 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Thanks John!!! Yeah it’s kind of a grey zone, I kind of just accepted that it’s both new and old noir haha. How are you btw? Good I hope! Ohh, I have to watch repulsion now. It beats Chinatown??! Hmm, interesting.

      Like

  6. Wendell says:

    Fantastic review. This certainly is one of the best noirs ever made. It is not the birth of the genre, but that’s been covered. Any way you slice it, Chinatown is a great film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Thanks Wendell!! I appreciate it 🙂 Chinatown’s like my go-to film when recommending film noir. Or any good film really 😉

      Like

  7. Thanks for posting a review of this 40 year old classic. The greatness of this film starts with the Robert Towne screenplay, a screenplay used in screenwriting classes as a template. Interestingly, Towne wrote it with a happy ending, but Roman Polanski made the ending tragic, which improved the final cut.
    There’s also the beautiful cinematography from John Alonzo, and very period. It’s hard to tell that it was filmed in the 1970’s (except for the profanity). And the cast was absolutely stellar, even the minor characters like Claude Mulvehill, the officious clerk at the hall of records, and the rancher who turns his goats loose at the planning commission hearing are very memorable.
    Another fascinating aspect of Chinatown is that it’s based on real history. From the rape of Owens Valley to the infamous bond act that the people of Los Angeles thought was going to bring them water (little did they know that the San Fernando Valley, the real destination of the water, was about to be incorporated into the city), water politics was, is, and always will be a major issue in California.
    And I think the confusion of what constitutes film noir is because it was a genre title that was applied after the fact. When they were first released during the ’40’s and ’50’s they were called crime dramas, melodramas, or police procedurals. The term came about in the later ’50’s in France when critics looked back on recent movies and discovered themes of alienation, uncertainly, fateful decisions, and darkness that seemed to connect a lot of recent movies. Its life span is generally considered from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958). And every movie after that era with similar themes is called neo-noir.
    Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Very interesting 🙂 Sorry I only recently saw your comment 😦 I liked how you just explained how film noir came about because I find it to be one of the most ‘real’ and ‘human’ genres/styles ever. Yes! I read about Polanski changing the ending…phew imagine if it had a happy ending, it wouldn’t be tragedy and there would certainly be no catharsis. Thanks 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The textbook film noir is Double Indemnity, which is about a man who commits murder for both love and money. I’m definitely a fan of the noir myself, other classics of the genre are The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and Thieves’ Highway.
        Chinatown was originally going to be the first part of an Los Angeles trilogy. The first was about water, the second was about oil, and third was going to be about the expansion of the freeway system after LA’s trolley system was closed down.
        The second film, The Two Jakes, did get made in the late ’80’s. The third was going to be called Cloverleaf, but it never got made. However, its plot was reshaped and made into Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Interestingly critics pointed out that Roger Rabbit had a Chinatown-like plot.

        Like

  8. Love, love, love Chinatown! I listed it as one of the best movie endings of all time…it was so shocking! You generally don’t get that level of shock (and disgust) from movies anymore!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      That’s so true. It kind of mirrors fiction nowadays you know, like how books tend to have that happier or forced ending which totally ruins ‘catharsis’ derived from true tragedy…though it needn’t necessarily always be tragic. I thought the end was perfect, it left me shocked and in deep thought haha. I’m glad you love it so much :)))

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m so glad you included the main theme from the soundtrack, Goldsmith’s score for Chinatown is beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Hehe 🙂 It’s so iconic, I had to! What a beauty 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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