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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series Presents The Classics Retrospective: Chinatown (1974)

•A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series Classics Retrospective Takes You Back In Time. With Roman Polanski’s Classic 1974 Thriller “Chinatown”, starring Jack Nicholson.

The term “classics” and “masterpiece”, were created for films like “Chinatown”. Released in 1974 and making it’s 45th Anniversary this year in 2019. An influential 1930’s noir, directed by controversial director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ghost Writer). It’s one of those films that’s an enduring masterpiece that was once regarded as one of the best films of it’s era, the 1970s to becoming one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. 

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress. It’s sole victory was for Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne (Days Of Thunder, The Firm, Mission Impossible). His script continues to be singled out and even utilized by film professors as a model for screenwriting perfection. Many considered “Chinatown” to be second running to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II” which won that year for Best Picture, and while “Chinatown” would have likely cleaned up against any other opponent, it had no chance against the sequel to the much-loved mob drama. Still, it was probably the only time in history that someone actually considered second place an honor, and I can’t think of a better film than “Chinatown” to fill that role.

Roman Polanski was not the first choice as director, the studio eyed Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). After Polanski had two flops after his horror masterpiece “Rosemary’s Baby” Paramount felt he needed a chance to re-prove himself. “Chinatown” had become his first American made film since 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby”. It confirmed that Polanski is in total command of his talents and physical filmmaking elements. I don’t think he has made a more watchable film than his 1974 noir thriller. Although when Polanski finally landed the gig he started having second thoughts. The thought of returning to Los Angeles, where his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered four years earlier, was too overwhelming for him at the time. Polanski did go through with it since he had the benefit of having Jack Nicholson, a fine producer in Robert Evans (Marathon Man, Urban Cowboy), an equally notable screenplay from Robert Towne. 

At the center of “Chinatown”, there’s the Jack Nicholson performance. It’s a triumph of acting from Nicholson who is one of the most interesting actors to ever work in Hollywood. Coming off back to back Oscar nominations for his work in “Five Easy Pieces” and “Easy Rider,” Nicholson was at the top of his game, and while many might point to his Oscar winning role that followed the year after “Chinatown”, in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as the best of his career, it’s his work in “Chinatown” that remains the actor’s most accessible performance to date.

Nicholson spends more than half the film wearing a bandage over his nose, after running into a pair of goons who slice his nose for getting to nosey (check out the goon who slices him which is played by director Roman Polanski).

The role of Evelyn Mulwray was meant for Ali MacGraw who was at the time married to Robert Evans but was discarded after she left Evans to marry Steve McQueen. Robert Evans then wanted Jane Fonda for the part, but Roman Polanski insisted upon Faye Dunaway as she was Polanski’s vision for the character. 

“Chinatown” has Jack Nicholson starring as Jake Gittes, a private detective in pre-war Los Angeles who’s just been hired to investigate city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) after his wife suspects him of having an affair. When news hits the front page the next day, however, the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears in Jake’s office denying she ever hired him to spy on her husband – that is, until Mr. Mulwray ends up dead. Curious as to why Mulwray would be murdered mere days after breaking news on the faux affair, Jake digs deeper and uncovers a conspiracy involving a water company owner (John Huston) and his plans to create a citywide drought, all for the purpose of buying land cheap and selling it for millions more.

Anyone who’s seen the film knows the plot is complex, but that’s what makes “Chinatown” so unique. Not only does it require the audience to pay full attention, but it rewards them with an engaging detective mystery.  You can’t find an experience like this in present day cinema, and while Curtis Hanson’s 1997 noir “L.A. Confidential” comes the closest in recent years, while they are great actors neither Guy Pearce nor Russell Crowe can command the screen quite like Jack Nicholson.

Towne’s original draft had a voice over spoken by Jake. Roman Polanski eliminated the voice over narration, and filmed the movie so that the audience discovered the clues at the same time Jake did. Towne’s script was a hefty script weighing with more than 180 pages. It was the first part of a planned trilogy. Although a third film never happened, sixteen years after “Chinatown” Nicholson, this time as both director and star had re-teamed with screenwriter Robert Towne for “The Two Jakes”. The unjustly overlooked sequel which finds his character Jake Gittes drawn into a mystery that shrewdly connects back to the events from the first picture. 

Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski were notorious for having on-set arguments. During filming, Polanski went as far as pulling out some strands of Dunaway’s hair. On one occasion, she asked him what her character’s motivation was, he exploded and told her, “Just say the f**king words, your salary is your motivation!”. There were many rumors circulating about Faye Dunaway’s diva-like behavior during the making of the film. One such was that she refused to flush her own toilet, and expected her assistants to do it for her. On another occasion, while filming a scene in a car, Roman Polanski refused to let her urinate, so he could finish the scene. She then urinated in a cup and threw it in his face.

John Alonzo’s sepia colored cinematography, frequently resembles old postcards and has the same visual effect as a black and white noir. “Chinatown” is a 1930s private-eye movie that doesn’t depend on nostalgia or camp for its effect, but works because of the enduring strength of the genre itself. It’s a film that looks and could have been made in the 1930’s.

The whole movie is a tour de force; it’s a period movie, with all the right cars, clothes and props, but we forget that after the first ten minutes as we’ve become involved in the movie’s web of mystery. It’s one of the great masterworks of ’70s American cinema. As Jake Gittes is famously told in the film’s closing line “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”. But we can’t forget it as it’s in a word, unforgettable.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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