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.
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.