Well it’s a classic for a reason. I went into this rewatch with an expectation that it wouldn’t be as good as it’s reputation, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this cynical, slow burn of a movie holds up.
Chinatown tells the story of private investigator played by Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, who is hired by a suspicious wife to see if her husband is having an affair. Jake gets a lot more than he bargained for when his investigation uncovers murder, corruption, and the dark side of sunny Los Angeles.
I first saw this movie probably 15 years ago when I was just diving into classic cinema. It didn’t do much for me at the time. I was young and found it slowly paced, quiet, and convoluted. When I saw it was now streaming on Netflix, I thought it might be time to give it another shot. I’m glad I did because this movie is excellent.
It has a stellar screenplay by Robert Towne. It tells so much of the story through visuals and action. When dialogue and exposition are used they employ masterful subtext to get the point across. The story unfolds in a true slow burn. If you pay attention to what’s happening the story just crackles all the way through. I don’t recommend trying to watch it on your phone while you do other stuff. In order to get the most out of this movie you really have to commit to watching it and pay attention to the nuances on screen.
I was really struck by the world the movie creates. It paints an idyllic and idealized version of Los Angeles in the 1937. The sunshine is beautiful. The clothes are impeccable. The suits and hats are neatly tailored and worn just so. Jake apologizes to a lady for using the word broad to describe a woman. But at the same time it shows a gritty violent and realistic depiction of the world. When Jake gets into a fistfight it is messy and ugly and feels very real. When his nose gets cut in a very famous scene the violence is quick and shockingly painful to watch. I found this dichotomy of impossibly perfect and realistically messy incredibly engaging.
The acting here is also fantastic. It’s very naturalistic and understated. We all know Jack Nicholson can go over the top, but here he feels so natural and at ease. Faye Dunaway gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a sort femme fatale with deep wounds and deeper secrets. John Huston is iconic with that drawl of his talking about the future.
The direction here is self assured and steady. The camera lingers and the edits are methodical. This is a movie that is in complete control of its vision. It was refreshing to see something so stylistically different from what we get these days.
Now the big question is does this movie hold anything for a modern audience? Some classic are amazing but won’t do much for the average viewer. I think this one will. I think that if you’re looking for a good crime thriller this one will hold up and be a great surprise to many viewers. It feels oddly contemporary while still feeling timeless. I think if you give it a real chance you’re going to get a lot out of it.
This is my cup of tea. A+