Many film enthusiasts consider Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script for the 1974 Paramount film Chinatown to be the best screenplay of all time. But the film as a whole, though universally well-regarded, somehow never seems to rate the same hyperbolic claim. The implication, then, is that director Roman Polanski failed to fully exploit the potential of the screenplay, or that the casting of Jack Nicholson, Fay Dunaway, and John Huston missed the mark. When one considers these unintentional criticisms the praising of this script rather than the entire film becomes fairly ridiculous. Anyone who has actually read Towne’s various drafts would surely conclude that the film Chinatown is a perfect realization of one of the richest and more ambitious (but also long and confusing) screenplays ever written, and that director Roman Polanski and producer Robert Evans’ contributions to the shaping of the final screenplay, as well as Chinatown's casting and execution, make it a solid contender for the best picture of all time.
Maybe the inclination to praise the screenplay over the film arises because Chinatown is a cerebral movie—neither visceral like a comedy or action picture nor emotional like a romance or a fantasy film. But intellectual stimulation is no less cinematic than thrills, chills, laughs, or tears. The power to provoke thought is one of the most important things that movies in general, and this one in particular, have to offer.
Much like Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather did with gangster movies a few years earlier, and like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark would do with fantasy and adventure serials a few years later, Chinatown took a defunct, B-grade genre from Hollywood’s “golden age”—the film noir—and revitalized it with all the grandeur, scale, and moral ambiguity of the “auteur age” of the 1970s. The film noir style had fallen out of fashion by the mid-1950s, and in was beginning to become a kind of joke, as in Robert Altman’s authentically hard-boiled but playfully sarcastic The Long Goodbye, which preceded Chinatown by a year. But in contrast to the wonderfully cynical and whimsical deconstructionism of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown does a great deal more than update or comment on an old genre. It is the first and best example of an entirely new kind of movie: a modern, historical noir.
Shot in Technicolor and Panavision with an A-list cast and budget, Chinatown is a film about—and in the style of—Los Angeles in the 1930s. And because Chinatown is an authentic period piece, rather than a homage or a modernized retelling of an old story, the film is also an examination and illumination of the cinematic genre that inspired it. There's nothing ironic or retro about Chinatown; it feels like it could actually have been made in the 1930s—albeit by a director and crew who went back in time with film equipment from the '70s.
Chinatown is, first and foremost, a terrific story. As in all the best detective fiction, the investigation of a current case uncovers the long-buried secrets of a crime from the past. No movie accomplishes this uncovering as masterfully as Chinatown. Its rich and complex plotline brims with deceptions, red herrings, clever reversals, and parallel mysteries about familial, civic, and environmental violations.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective whose investigation of a murder leads him to uncover a shady land development deal and an attempt to steal control of Los Angeles's water rights. While these topics might seem like unexciting fodder for a crime story, the subject matter, based loosely on the real history of Los Angeles’s Owens Valley, becomes an ideal vehicle for conveying the film’s principle themes of power and greed. What Chinatown is really about is how wealthy men manipulate the weak, the government, and even nature itself to make themselves even more powerful. The movie lays out for us how the ultra-rich elite play by a different set of rules than the rest of society and how they can get away with murder (and worse). We become acutely aware that the unscrupulous events which took place in the smoke-filled rooms, government offices, and back alleys of early 20th-century Los Angeles have happened in every city, at every time in history, and that they are still happening today.
Robert Towne was a long-time friend of Jack Nicholson—the two young men met while taking acting classes together—so Towne was able to write the role of Jake specifically for Nicholson’s talents. This role made Jack Nicholson the star he was destined to become, and his controlled performance in the movie is his best ever. A hero and a genre picture are only as strong as their villain, and John Huston’s performance as Noah Cross,
a larger-than-life capitalist whose dangerous amorality lurks just beneath the surface of his prepossessing respectability, is dynamic and thrilling. Huston, who directed one of the quintessential film noirs of all time, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and who was still a vibrant and vital remnant of the old Hollywood system, had his own larger-than-life and morally dubious persona, which enriched his characterization of Cross and contributed greatly to the role’s unique cinematic symbolism. He appears in few scenes, yet those scenes they carry the thematic power of the movie.
Nicholson spends much of the film in bureaucratic environments that by all rights should be as dull as plaster: municipal offices, a morgue, a police station, and the hall of records. Through Roman Polanski's unrivaled eye for composition and the sumptuously detailed production design of Dick Sylbert, these cold settings become rich environments that we want to revisit again and again, especially when unexpected things happen in them. The startling early scene in which a farmer lets a herd of sheep loose at a city council meeting establishes that the movie will be, unpredictable, and, as Nicholson’s mischievous reaction to Rance Howard and his woolly intruders makes clear, a lot of fun.
Polanski is a master of film technique. There is not a single unmotivated shot, cut, nor move in this picture. The camera is always perfectly positioned, often just over Nicholson’s shoulder with his hat and the back of his head off to one side of the 2.35:1 frame. I don’t think there has ever been a film that has spent so much time on the back of the lead actor's head. This bold technique locks the audience into Gittes' perspective so that we always process the story’s complex narrative at the same time he does. While the audience is never ahead of the main character, Polanski challenges us to keep up with Gittes as he tries, but never fully succeeds, to uncover the truth and react to it in time.
The brilliant camera work and lighting never draw attention to themselves; you could watch Chinatown fifteen times before you really notice how intricately its shots are designed and photographed. No other director—not Hitchcock, not Kubrick, not Spielberg, not Scorsese—has made anything that even comes close to Polanski's command of mise-en-scene in this film.
Chinatown demands to be seen on a big screen in a real cinema. It moves at a deliberate pace and is filled with far too much detail to be appreciated without giving it full attention. By 1993, when I finally saw Chinatown in the gorgeous main theatre of the Coolidge Corner Movie House in Boston, I had already seen it at least six times on VHS and laserdisc. But seeing it in 35mm and with an audience made it feel like an entirely different film than the one I thought I knew so well. My eyes and mind were fully opened to the awe-inspiring accomplishment that is Chinatown. That screening remains one of the top five cinema-going experiences of my life.
To be truly great, a film must keep an audience interested by staying ahead of us and never condescending to us. It must hold up to repeat viewings, and offer new insights each time we watch it. It must capture a truth, or make us think about a truth in a way we haven’t before. And it must work on multiple levels without ever allowing the secondary themes or cinematic concepts to overpower the main narrative. No film does this as well as Chinatown. It's time to stop limiting the praise for this picture to its screenplay and recognize the movie for what it is: one of the most perfect pieces of cinema ever.