The term film noir was coined in France in 1946 to describe a certain kind of American film, which had become quite popular. Meaning black film in French, many of the directors of the time were not even aware they were contributing to the phenomenon. It is still debated today what exactly film noir is: a genre, a mood, a style, or something else? Whatever it is exactly, by the mid-seventies the high period of film noir had long since ended. Chinatown (released in 1974), perhaps acclaimed director Roman Polanski’s finest movie, was made as a tribute to the style/genre.
In classifying a film as noir, film historians look for several elements, not all of which have to be evident in each film. The cynical private eye, the femme fatale, and the bleak worldview are three of the most famous film noir essentials. Unlike most of the noir movies filmed during the high period, Chinatown was filmed with the specific intention of being film noir and so concentrated on and emphasized these classic components.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a cynical wisecracking private eye with a past. A former police officer in Los Angeles, where he still works, he is hired by one Mrs. Mulwray, played by Diane Ladd, to spy on her husband and produce proof of his affair. Jake gets the proof, which somehow winds up on the front page of the local newspaper.
The next day, another woman, played by Faye Dunaway, shows up in his office and demands to know if Jake remembers ever meeting her before. When Jake assures her he has never met her, she reveals that she is the real Mrs. Mulwray and therefore, by his own admission, she could never have hired him to spy on her husband. Her lawyer serves him with some legal documents with the comment he will wait for the reply from Jake’s attorney.
Worried about his reputation in what he refers to as a small town (the movie takes place during the 1930s), Jake decides he needs to get to the bottom of things and fast. His investigations slowly peel back layers of deceit and untangle a very snarled web of intrigue and secrets with everything leading up to a fateful meeting in L.A.’s Chinatown.
Great movies have great scripts, and Chinatown is no exception. Robert Towne’s screenplay gets to the essence of film noir with its cynical mood and its complex plot. The way in which the mystery is gradually revealed, with every answer leading to further questions, is heightened by the directing and editing, which take their time to develop things as they should. The camera work is simple and elegant, with a minimum of shots compensated for by fluidity and efficiency.
Nicholson’s performance, while reminiscent of so many Bogart roles, is also uniquely his own. It is matched for brilliance by Faye Dunaway’s own role, while the great director John Huston convincingly portrays the rich and dangerous Noah Cross. Even the small parts stand out as being very individualized without wasting too much effort and killing momentum by developing them: a sure sign of a talented director.
Furthermore, the soundtrack mimics the unhurried pace of the film while also recalling a bygone era. It simply is a splendid work of cinema. All the essential components of a master film are in place. It works as a tribute to a historically important style of film making, but also stands alone on its own terms.
Nitpickers have gone through the movie and found some mistakes, such as the pitch of the police sirens and the ringing phones not being authentic to the 1930s. Even being aware of these minor problems, however, does not really detract from the experience. The clothes look right, the actors behave right, and the world just feels right. The only true problem I have with the opus was that it was filmed in color.
Roman Polanski has said black and white photography is an accident of technology and he prefers not to use it, going for the true-to-life color film. Be that as it may, going with color photography, one cannot imitate another important noir feature: the fantastic chiaruscuro lighting with its extreme contrasts between light and dark, black and white.
But when presented with such excellence in every aspect of the art, one can hardly spend too much time complaining about the film stock. Chinatown, due to the color film and the definitely R-rated themes, is inexorably a later film than those of the high period of film noir. But it captures the essence of the noir style in a movie that intrigues, entertains, and fascinates on its own terms, rather than settling for being a pale tribute to greater classics. Indeed, very few of the movies from the actual noir period can equal Chinatown for greatness.
Final Grade: A
The Upside: A wonderful tribute which captures the feel of the noir style; a great story and well directed in its own right; inspired performances by the actors.
The Downside: It might have been better as a black and white film; nitpickers might complain of certain inauthentic elements.
On the Side: In one shot, Jack Nicholson takes a photograph of the allegedly philandering husband of Mrs. Mulwray. We see the scene by the reflection in the camera lens, which should be upside down to our view. Roman Polanski had the image inverted so it would be right side up for the audience’s sake, but he later regretted the decision, saying he would never do that if he filmed it now.
Matthew Alexander is a Senior Critic for Film School Rejects.