Classic Film Corner: ‘Chinatown’

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By Isaac Furman

The 1974 movie Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanksi and written by Robert Towne, is a throwback to both an underutilized style of filmmaking and a bygone era in American history.

Set in 1930’s Los Angeles, the film centers around private investigator JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and his work on a case that ultimately seems to involve the entire city.

The movie starts with Nicholson’s character receiving a simple, boring case assignment concerning adultery. However, Gittes soon realizes that he has stumbled into something much bigger: a twisted web of crimes including but not limited to murder.

Gittes digs deeper, discovering that corrupt public officials are stealing water from the San Fernando Valley. As he weaves his way through the seedy underbelly of LA, he begins to face increasingly strong opposition.

Chinatown is a great example of film noir. It separates itself from others within this genre, such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, with an unparalleled level of plot sophistication.

In just two hours, Polanski is able to create an incredibly detailed world.

None of the characters are simple. Nicholson’s character instantly becomes iconic due to his gritty, hard-boiled nature and, to this day, critics debate whether he is a “good” character or “bad” character.

Details aren’t spared on supporting characters, either. The movie’s femme fatale, Evelyn Malwray (Faye Dunaway) remains a very confusing, complex individual, even after multiple viewings of Chinatown. Is she a manipulative woman with her own interests in mind, or the only person in Los Angeles with a heart? The answer can change at any point in the movie.

What makes Chinatown so enjoyable to watch is how active the audience has to be while watching it. It keeps viewers guessing and constantly re-evaluating the motives and intentions of each character. If you are looking to have your mind challenged by a film, then Chinatown is a great choice.

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