The year is 1937, and at the height of summer Los Angeles is suffering a drought; water is becoming big business as the city expands. But for private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), it's simply business as usual, he doesn't care much for the commercial world and as long as he is making a comfortable income telling spouses that their partners are cheating on them, with evidence he provides of course, then why should he put his keen mind to use on worrying about the powers that be - unless they're committing adultery, naturally. Which one of them appears to be doing, as he is visited in his offices by Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) who asks him to look into the activities of her husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling)...
But all is not as it seems, as you might have anticipated from one of the updates of the classic private detective yarn as delivered by a number of movies in the nineteen-seventies as nostalgia for the Golden Age took hold, ultimately giving rise to works like Star Wars. Chinatown was very unlike Star Wars, however; where the George Lucas science fiction epic sought to breathe new life into Flash Gordon, this was far less impressed with the endeavours of Philip Marlowe and all those Sam Spade imitators who populated so many mystery movies of the thirties and forties. In those, the private eye was always the smartest person in the room, yet here, Gittes only thought he was when he was actually in over his head.
This determined undercutting of everything we knew, or took for granted, about a popular template for fiction rendered Chinatown something redolent of the era it emerged from, which was the conspiracy yarn. Ever since the Watergate scandal, heck, ever since the Vietnam War put a substantial part of the general public at odds with the authorities who no longer appeared to be working for their best interests, the media of the day was being influenced by a deeply unimpressed counterculture, and though the look of this effort echoed the past of nearly forty years before, the message was clear: don't fall back on nostalgia for the days when things were better, because there was actually no such era.
You only thought things were better, but the fact remained the powers that be were just as corrupt as they ever were, and if Gittes, our much-abused representative in this society, realised anything once the mystery was solved it was that the men who controlled the world had a capacity for crimes far and above the minor scuffles the people they were supposed to be looking after and serving ever were: they were only looking after their own interests, and oftentimes those concerns involved some of the vilest behaviour imaginable. Not only that, but they would get away with them because there was no way for any of the subjects of the nation, the planet indeed, had any ability to prevent them, never mind stop it happening time and again ad nauseam.
Imagine seeing Chinatown in 1974 (when it was a very big hit, and rightly so) and coming away from it thinking the authorities had not improved one jot since all those decades ago, and watch it now and ponder that the state of the globe may not be very much better. One hesitates to use the word zeitgeist simply because it is a film that had never gone out of fashion as thanks to its period look it can be relevant to any aspect of history, or even the future. At the time, and since for that matter, much of that success was placed at the feet of screenwriter Robert Towne who went on to a lucrative career as one of the most sought after script doctors in Hollywood, but however grudging you may be in hindsight, a great part of the credit had to go to director Roman Polanski for whipping the material into shape with such pinpoint accuracy as to hitting its targets.
Polanski had an excellent cast too, no matter that leading lady Faye Dunaway clashed with him often and generally had a miserable experience; it was no walk in the park for Jack Nicholson either, though he was immensely satisfied with the results and little wonder as it delivered one of his best performances in a career littered with excellence. His Gittes is not your average world-weary 'tec, he is more of a smartass than that, much as we liked to see the star gaining the upper hand in every situation, yet by the close of the story we realise he has been wrongfooted and made a fool of so thoroughly that the only option he has left is to give up his crusade against evil, a broken man. Although maybe not so broken that he was unable to appear in the belated sequel The Two Jakes, penned by Towne and directed by Nicholson, though the projected closing part of the trilogy never happened. Still, Chinatown endures, resonating down the years thanks to its villains who always seem too big to beat: John Huston embodied that entitlement perfectly, an entitlement that is always devastating because it is proven right so often. Music by Jerry Goldsmith, a triumph of plaintive trumpet and sinister piano.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.