BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge: Chinatown, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
I first saw Chinatown in a class focusing on director Roman Polanski. It was an interesting class, and I learned a lot; mostly I learned that Polanski doesn’t really make films for me. But I had to admire how much of a chameleon he is. He made films in almost every genre there is. At the time I wasn’t a big fan of Chinatown, but after seeing five or six of his movies that I didn’t like I think had (unfairly) set up an expectation to not like it.
But now I have revisited Chinatown and am I glad I did. This is yet another great example of the Battleship Pretension Top 100 list forcing me to rethink my prior opinions about a movie. I loved Chinatown on this viewing. I love film noir as a genre and this is an excellent entry in the genre as well as just a very compelling film. The mystery at the heart of it is interesting but also enough of a “macguffin” that it doesn’t get in the way.
One thing that I really love is the old-timey detective work that Gittes does. He goes through town records, he follows his subjects and uses broken watches to know when they move locations, and he does hard leg work. While modern detective stories are often interesting and compelling, there is something about watching a detective in a slick suit and hat hitting the pavement and working leads. He takes his licks along the way but he is going to solve the mystery and get the girl along the way.
Speaking of the girl, Faye Dunaway is wonderful as femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray. She is a cool customer in her gorgeous dresses and veiled hats. She uses Gittes, but she is also a sympathetic character. The scene when Gittes slaps her around and she shouts “my sister, my daughter” is a little cheesy and over the top, but when you realize that she as a victim of terrible sexual abuse by her father, she shifts instantly from ice queen to pitiable. Dunaway pulls off both aspects of the character. When she is finally confronted by her abusive father, her motherly instincts kick in and she does whatever she has to do to protect her daughter.
Jack Nicholson shines as J.J. Gittes. He has the right blend of charm and grit. He is willing to get a little dirty to get his cases solved and of course loves the press associated with his success, but he is also a good detective. I believe the connection between Gittes and Evelyn and when they finally sleep together it is romantic instead of forced. Nicholson is a very good actor and has just the energy for Gittes. He can take over a room or outwit people but he is often out gunned, out smarted, and out witted by people who are trying to keep their secrets. It keeps the story fresh and captivating right to the end.
While Chinatown has a lot of the hallmarks of a Polanski film, it manages to stay most true to its film noir roots. Polanski loves a story of misguided or perverted love, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of the characters. He understands what makes the film noir genre work, and he hits all the key beats while managing to keep the story from feeling stale or played out. I’m glad I got to revisit this film again and reform my opinion.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
Chinatown ranking: Carrier