Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Directed by: Roman Polanski
This bleak detective noir follows luxuriously suited P.I. or ‘snoop’ J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicolson) as he investigates corrupt water rights and Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) dark family secrets in 1930s Los Angeles.
It’s an exquisite piece, based on Robert Towne’s technically flawless screenplay and directed with knowing panache by Roman Polanski. Note how Gittes appears in every single scene, a difficult cinematic device akin to the novels of Raymond Chandler from which the film draws heavy inspiration. Towne and Polanski may have quarrelled over the ending, but their creative synergy is undeniable.
Anthea Sylbert’s costume design remains memorable for its LA authenticity. She includes many period features: turban, jabot blouses, plunging v-necks, polka dot prints, Gittes’ wide lapelled suits and loud ties. Sartorial details do vary sporadically from beginning to end of the 1930s; the length of Dunaway’s just below the knee jersey skirt is even encroaching on the fifties at one point. Though this is just a cross-section and styles of the time were generally more diverse than oft remembered, especially with high fashion.
Sylbert once remarked that, “The Costume Designer’s job is not to draw to oneself, but to serve the whole. If you want to be a star, become a fashion designer“. In other words costumes should inform and not detract from the narrative. Evelyn’s militaristic day suit with defined shoulders and mannish, high crowned fedora worn when she first meets Gittes ably demonstrate Sylbert’s philosophy.
Chinatown (1974) is even perhaps more powerful second time around. Watching the later scenes between Evelyn and Gittes, knowing what you know, is a heartbreaking experience. Dunaway elicits a performance so complex and emotional it drills deep into the soul.
This is a sumptuous and sometimes draining film, lasting testament to the seventies rejection of greed and authority that would be so excitedly embraced again ten years later. A landmark blend of acting, directing, structure and design, Chinatown is the greatest detective movie ever made.
© 2009 – 2012, Christopher Laverty.