This is a review of Chinatown that I wrote in the summer of 1999 while taking a creative writing course at Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development. Roman Polanski has not had a good life. He grew up in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust, and his pregnant mother was sent to the gas chambers by the Nazis when he was seven. During this distressingly harsh period, his only comfort came from sneaking into a nearby movie theater. Later in life, he gained some notice as an actor, and later as adirector, which brought him to the United States, where he first gained popular attention (and an Oscar nomination) for Rosemary's Baby. The following year his pregnant wife was brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson's cult. He continued to make films, but a few years later he was accused of statutory rape. Rather than stand trial, he fled the country. That was in 1977. He hasn't been back since.
However messed up his personal life may be, Polanski is a great filmmaker, and Chinatown is proof of that. Even more, Chinatown is an example of what happens when all the components of great filmmaking come together. Polanski's direction, Robert Towne's screenplay, Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, John A. Alonzo's great widescreen cinematography (I was lucky enough to be able to view this in letterbox), Richard Sylbert's atmospheric production design, and wonderful performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston all contribute to making Chinatown the towering achievement that it is.
Towne's screenplay is generally considered one of the greatest ever written. It has so many twists and turns that multiple viewings are necessary to straighten out all of the events which take place. Still, the movie is a mystery, so this make sense. But Towne does more than just write a good mystery; he uses his script to lift Chinatown to a mythic plane. He has stated that rather than a normal whodunit, he wanted to write a movie about a really big crime, like the destruction of a way of life. That is indeed what he has done. The people of Southern California in the 1930's were farmers, dependent on a limited water supply for the sustenance of their lifestyle. It was the dream of a few developers, however, that Los Angeles would one day be a great sprawling metropolis, and for this to happen they needed that water also. Towne takes full advantage of the mythic qualities of water, something every civilization since the dawn of man has depended on. He makes water a constant motif - the script abounds with direct and indirect references to it, and several major incidents occur in or around it.
Chinatown can be interpreted through its motif. It can also, I'm told, be interpreted as a critique of New Deal policy, although I don't know enough about the politics of that period to do this theory justice in my review. Most commonly, however, it is interpreted as a revival of a genre that had been dead for several years - the film noir. Noir, the French word for "black," describes a type of film, usually a mystery, that is characterized by shadows - both physical and moral.
"Chinatown" can also be interpreted as a symbol of that thing that happened in our past, the thing which drives us in whatever we do, but which we cannot bear to look back and face. Towne wrote the story as one of redemption, but Polanski, who has an understandably bleak view of life, changed the ending to one of tragic irony. The hero faces his past, but he cannot defeat progress.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Jack Nicholson plays the hero, Jake Gittes, as a man who doesn't always know what he's doing - but that doesn't stop him from doing it anyway. Faye Dunaway plays the femme fatale as cold and inaccessible, but then lets the facade fall away to reveal a warmth that allows us to care about her character. John Huston was a legend in his own time by the time he made this movie, and his performance is nothing short of incredible. (The first prominent example of film noir, The Maltese Falcon, was directed by Huston, which lends additional credence to his patriarchal role. His character's name, Noah, also ties back to the water motif.) Such notable names as Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Burt Young, James Hong, and Polanski himself all give memorable performances in small roles.
The movie's greatest triumph, no doubt, is Polanski's fusion of all of its different elements - each incredible in itself - into something which not only evokes the atmosphere of the greatest film noirs of the past, but also succeeds in creating its own distinctive atmosphere. Chinatown is one of those rare movies, like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars, which transcend the realm of mere entertainment to become myth.