Chinatown is a permanent fixture on lists of the all-time best films, and with good reason. It’s a dark, stylish movie that simultaneously feels very modern and very old Hollywood. It's one of those movies that made the 1970s a golden age for American filmmaking.
The film features the 70s dream team of Roman Polanski directing, Robert Towne writing, and Jack Nicholson starring, with support from Faye Dunaway. Among them, they produced an intimidating number of classics in that decade, and this is probably the best film for all involved.
Chinatown is arguably the last straight-up film noir. Movies that attempt to do noir today are weighed down by genre expectations, and wind up commenting more on the genre than on reality. Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, for example, never for a minute felt real. Chinatown feels like it takes place in the 30s, and consistently gives the viewer a vivid sense of place. It feels like the noirs of the 40s and 50s, but free of the content restrictions those films had. One could argue that this film’s definitive take on the genre made anything that came after it a stylistic exercise, rather than a legitimate story.
The film’s success, much like that of The Godfather, hinges on the way it updated classic Hollywood filmmaking for an era when depicting sex and violence was more acceptable. The presence of John Huston harks back to classic films like The Maltese Falcon, which simmered under the surface with deviousness. Here, violence and sex come to the fore, though never to excess. The major development that wouldn’t have been allowed in an old Hollywood movie is the film’s final twist, along with its subsequent denouement. But that ambiguity is largely what makes the film so powerful. It’s no coincidence that its most famous line is its closing one: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”