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Chinatown (1974)

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Robert Towne

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, Burt Young

J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) has been hired by a woman seeking to expose her adulterous husband. The job soon becomes dangerous as Gittes gains the attention of powerful people.

This film is a classic example of neo-noir, written by Robert Towne (The Firm) and directed by Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). The film stars Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Faye Dunaway (Network), and features performances from John Huston (The African Queen), Perry Lopez (McLintock!), and Burt Young (Rocky). The film would go on to earn 11 Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Director.

This film made a huge impact on my film school experience, and the way I write screenplays today. Both during and after college, I have read numerous books on the subject of screenwriting. I can’t recall a single book that didn’t take time to mention this film. It’s a masterpiece that really gave birth to the genre we now know as neo-noir. The films that have joined Chinatown include L.A. Confidential, Drive, and Pulp Fiction.

Towne’s script begins with a great opening scene that sets a clear tone and introduces J.J. Gittes. From there we begin to meet other characters, each with their own quirks and mannerisms. The dialogue gives each of the characters their own voice. All of these aspects help to add a great texture and genuine feel to the movie. This is a fascinating story that starts simply and unravels through a series of escalating events. While this might sound like a lot of films, it’s the little details that set it apart. There are a number of unexpected twists that really keep the tension in this film. All of this leads to a series of payoffs and a fantastic conclusion. This one does all the right things with the story, giving the actors so much to work with. It’s as impressive today as it was when it was released. Chinatown earned Robert Towne an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Jack Nicholson becomes J.J. Gittes in this movie. He opens up his performance playing a character not unlike Bogart’s Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon). There is a crass and cocky element to the performance that immediately brings this story a film noir vibe. Throughout the movie his performance shifts, showing his fear and anger, giving Gittes a level of humanity. He also creates much of the tension late in the film through his excellent performance. Faye Dunaway does an equally good job with her role in this one. Like Nicholson, her performance begins from a position of strength. For her character, this position soon devolves into a series of escalating breakdowns. Dunaway also does a great job with some of the more intensely emotional scenes in the film. For their work, Nicholson and Dunaway would earn nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress.

The great performances aren’t limited to the two stars already mentioned. The film features great performances from dozens of actors playing some of the minor characters in the film. Some of the standout performances in the film come from several veteran actors. John Huston might have done his best work behind the camera, but in this one he’s great in front of the lens. Burt Young and Perry Lopez are just a couple of the other standouts in this one. Each of the performances in this one add an authenticity and richness to the film. They all benefited from great material, and they made the most of the opportunities.

The cinematography for this movie is excellent. Part of capturing the era was choosing great locations and knowing where to put the camera. The art direction and costume design help to finish the job. The combined efforts come together to create a very special collection of visuals. The editing did its part in giving this one an excellent pace and a lot of visual tension. John A. Alonzo earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. The film also took home nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction. Looks aren’t everything. The film benefits from excellent sound work that helps to create the era of the film. There is also the addition of the score composed by Jerry Goldsmith (Rudy). The film would add Best Sound and Best Original Score to the list of Oscar nominations.

This is an amazing movie that really created neo-noir. It has a story that plays on multiple levels and rises above a crime drama into something more. It you’re a fan of the older film noir, this is one you should make sure to see. Throughout the film there are several clear acknowledgments of that classic genre. This is also a good one for anyone who likes crime dramas and mysteries. I would also suggest this to fans of the stars. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.

Rating: R

Running Time: 130 Minutes


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