Chinatown was one of those famous movies that I kept hearing about but knew next to nothing about, except for the fact that it starred Jack Nicholson and was directed by Roman Polanski. I finally got around to seeing it and found that it's reputation as a classic is well earned.
The film is a mystery / thriller centering around a Los Angeles private detective named Jake Gittes (Nicholson). Gittes is hired by a woman named Mrs. Mulwray to prove that her husband, Hollis Mulwray, is having an affair. Infidelity cases are Gittes' bread and butter, and he and his assistants set to work following Mulwray around. They observe peculiar behaviour on the part of Mulwray, but eventually catch him with another woman. The pictures make the headlines, following which another woman (Faye Dunaway) shows up at Gittes' office and serves him with a lawsuit - it turns out that she's the real Mrs. Mulwray. Stung by this, Gittes sets out to find out why he was set up to harm Mr. Mulwray's reputation - his investigation is immediately confounded when Mr. Mulwray winds up dead. Gittes then offers to work for Mrs. Mulwray to find out who killed her husband, intimating that his death may have been related to his position as chief engineer for the city's Water Department.
Gittes' investigation leads him to many discoveries about the corrupt underbelly of the city. He begins to unearth a conspiracy to manipulate the city's water supply that may involve a wealthy businessman named Noah Cross (John Huston), who used to be Mulwray's partner at the Water Department. As the story progresses, Gittes' relationship with Mrs. Mulwray develops and he discovers dark secrets from her past. The plot is actually fairly complex, and what I've written thus far barely scratches the surface. It gradually builds up in layers till it reaches a tragic finale in Chinatown.
Every element of the film is well done. It's written and directed as a moody noir, with bleak visuals and desolate imagery. The late great Jerry Goldsmith's music complements the film well. Everything is evocative of the time and place in which the film is set. The story constantly unfolds and no scene is wasted - I particularly liked the way the plot was meted out in pieces that were coherent and easy to connect with what had come before whilst not being dumbed down (for instance, Mr. Mulwray's strange behaviour as observed by Gittes makes sense later on). The audience is made to know everything that Gittes knows, and we can easily understand the conclusions that he draws and the actions that he subsequently takes. There's a sense of believability to the manner in which Gittes carries out his investigation, right down to the little details. The same applies to the way the characters are written - they are complex and ambiguous, with their own personal histories and secrets.
When it comes to performances, only one needs to be singled out, and that's Nicholson's, who's in (I believe) every scene in the film. Watching this, I realized that I keep underestimating how good he is - some of his over the top performances (like the Joker in Batman) are stuck in my head to such an extent that it overshadows his great ones - like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, As Good as it Gets, and now Chinatown. Here he's perfectly cast as the intelligent, haunted detective with a quick, sardonic wit. He's charming when he needs to be, often smoothly talking his way into places, but also explosive and vitriolic when brought to anger. It's a terrific performance. The other performance of note is John Huston, who's great as the greedy and powerful Noah Cross. Faye Dunaway is very good but not exceptional as Mrs. Mulwray. The rest of the cast is also very good, and I was amused to see John Hillerman aka Higgins from Magnum P.I.!
In conclusion, Chinatown is an exceptionally well made, atmospheric film with an intelligent, unpredictable plot that is carried by a brilliant central performance. Yep, it's definitely a must see.
As an aside, I've realized that I've been incredibly positive about a whole bunch of films lately. This is not because I'm losing my cynicism; I've just been fortunate in that I've watched a bunch of very good films over the last few weeks. This has the unintended side effect of making mediocre films (like Underworld: Unintelligently Designed) that much harder to endure. I find myself almost unwilling to watch stuff that might be bad. Almost. I'm still a sucker for sci-fi / fantasy stuff, and am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It's a good thing there are so many (meant to be) great films that I still haven't seen, plus all the great films that I can rewatch, to wash away that bitter taste of a stinker.