The jig is up. Private investigator Jake Gittes (a marvelous Jack Nicholson) has finally put the pieces of a byzantine mystery together and now he seemingly has his man cornered; the wealthy, powerful, and sleazy Noah Cross (John Huston.) We're in Southern California, the year is 1937, the region is suffering through a terrible drought, and still the elderly Cross has been stealing water in order to irrigate acres and acres of his own cheap desert land in what one might describe as a Lex Luthror-ish plot.
Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?
That's not only my favorite exchange in a film loaded with classic dialogue, it's also one of my all-time favorites. Cross responds with, "The Future, Mr. Gittes!" but then immediately asks about his daughter/granddaughter -- a product of his incestuous rape who he now intends to rape.
"Chinatown" is about many, many things, but to me it's always been about doing evil for the sake of doing evil. There's no rhyme or reason behind the actions of Cross. He's an old man with more money than he can ever spend and maybe a decade of life left. And yet, here he is, still on a murdering, raping, power-grabbing rampage; a man more deadly in his dotage than he's ever been.
"Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," is just another way of saying, "You can go crazy trying to make sense of evil."
This is not only a fascinating theme to explore but as told by director/child rapist Roman Polanski, working off one of the best scripts ever crafted (by Robert Towne), the telling itself is as good as it gets. The mystery is dense but makes sense, the characters are complicated, and the spectacular dialogue sounds as though it really did come from the thirties. And this is another aspect of the film's unsung accomplishments.
"Chinatown" was produced in 1974 and filmed mostly on location, and yet you never doubt for a second that the year is 1937. Not only is the production design first-rate, the casting is as well.
One of the hardest elements in pulling off a period piece, especially one set in the 1930's, is finding actors who don’t look wildly out of place in that time period -- who don’t look like Bugsy Malone in a fedora. Flawless performances aside, Nicholson, Houston, Faye Dunaway, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez and the rest, look as organic in that era as Bogie and Bacall. Wisely, Polanski (who's at the top of his game) never hits us over the head. There's nothing self-conscious that screams "Welcome to Depression-era California!"
"Chinatown" lives up to every accolade it's ever received. Once you've cracked the mystery (which might take a couple of viewings), repeat screenings only allow you to concentrate and discover the many treasures left to be found, starting with the wonderfully complicated relationship between Gittes and Escobar (Lopez). Then you can watch it again for the dialogue and again for the cinematography and yet again for the politics.
Filmed in 2.35 : 1, Technicolor widescreen, the Blu-ray transfer is well worth the purchase for fans. I've seen Blurays where, for whatever reason, you don't sense the high-definition, and I've seen Blurays where the high-def knocks you out of your chair and ands an entirely new depth to the experience.
This is definitely the latter.
"Chinatown" is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.