Chinatown (1974)

Description   [from Freebase]

Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. The film features many elements of the film noir genre, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. It was released by Paramount Pictures. The story, set in Los Angeles in 1937, was inspired by the California Water Wars, the historical disputes over land and water rights that had raged in southern California during the 1910s and 1920s, in which William Mulholland acted on behalf of Los Angeles interests to secure water rights in the Owens Valley. Chinatown was the last film Roman Polanski made in the United States before fleeing to Europe. Chinatown has been called one of the greatest films ever made. It holds second position on the American Film Institute list of Best Mystery Films of all time. Chinatown was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning in the category of Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne. It also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay.


I do my homework. All right. So I don’t always do my homework, but when it comes to film critiquing, I’m pretty good at doing my homework. So, since The Ninth Gate is being released later this week, I figured I should check out the Chinatown DVD, in order to get background on Roman Polanski’s career.

Ain’t homework painful?

It wasn’t that Chinatown was a bad movie. In fact, by whatever textbook I use, Chinatown is a great film. It has an involved plot, interesting characters, steely direction, and on-the-mark acting. It has every possible reason I could have to like this movie, except the X factor.

In algebra, X represents the unknown. In cinema, X serves the same basic purpose. X is the combination of all other factors affecting your cinematic enjoyment. X can be good, as in the form of a girlfriend watching I Still Know What You Did Last Summer with you. Or X can be bad, as in the case of Chinatown, where I was incredibly drowsy while I watched the film and the slow pace of the movie didn’t help my condition.

Chinatown, for all of its cinematic genius and for all of the incredible scriptwriting that the film has, was unable to truly grab me. It was unable to suck me in, and, if a film can’t do that, than you’re in trouble.

Chinatown is the Byzantine mystery concerning the death of Water Commissioner Hollis Mulwray. Said death comes shortly after Private Detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) uncovers some pictures of Hollis in flagrante delicto with a young woman. Now Gittes was hired by someone other than Hollis’ wife (Faye Dunaway), and, when this comes to light and Hollis is found dead in a reservoir, Gittes has some digging to do.

By the textbook, the film is perfect. However, keep in mind that the textbooks on the subject of cinematic perfection were mostly written in admiration of such films as Chinatown and Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane actually was great to watch, where as Chinatown was not.

The reason that I did not enjoy Chinatown probably does not have so much to do with it being a bad film but with it not living up to my expectations. Chinatown is that film that you have heard, all through your life, is great. Yet when one confronts it, one feels disappointed. My advice, quite frankly, is to rent L.A. Confidential instead of watching Chinatown. If, however, you insist upon watching Chinatown, then make sure you expect it to be bad… then you’ll enjoy it. If you expect the world, you’ll end up like me.

[Editor’s note: In the opinion of this critic, Mr. Brundage must be on crack. -CN]

A new Special Collector’s Edition DVD includes a multi-part featurette on the making of the film and commentary from Robert Towne and David Fincher.

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