Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1972)

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Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski (1972).

Score: Outstanding.

A masterful deconstruction of Film Noir, Chinatown is brilliantly written and greatly executed. Ex-cop turned detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is approached to investigate the possible affair of a chief engineer of L.A. city hall, and ends up diving nose first into investigating a racket involving the city’s drinking water. And working side to side with the engineer’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

For the first three-quarters of the film, it’s a colourful homage to classic Film Noir, of the likes of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep: tough-as-nails detective who can light a match on his cheeks’ stubble goes around getting his nose in dodgy business and outsmarting everyone. Throw in some costume porn, decadent luxury and a snarky protagonist and you’re ready to go. But this goes a bit further. While your usual Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel will typically have unmistakably virtuous protagonists and the story will revolve around some unimportant macguffin, there is some serious shit going on here. Under the smug and stylish surface there is some very rotten rubbish, political corruption and moral misery. Robert Tawne, the writer, taps some very powerful universal taboos and leads the viewer to a ruthless conclusion: that there is very little a well-meaning man can do in a city infected with corruption.

Tawne’s use of foreshadowing and Chekhov’s guns is simply jaw-dropping, and while the film is a bit over two hours the narration is wonderfully economical and elegant. I definitely agree that this is one of the best screenplays ever written. Jack Nicholson’s and Faye Dunaway’s presences on screen are magnetic, with well-tempered and intoned voices. Kudos to the haunting trumpet solos.

It might not be a film to watch when you’re tired or hungover, since it’s a quite demanding film to watch, but it must be one of the best films ever.

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