‘Chinatown’ Begins as an Archetypal Private Detective Story; It Ends as a Definitive One

As if the widespread adoration of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown over the past 40 years or so hasn’t already rendered it difficult to write about with any freshness, the Blu-Ray release manages to make it even trickier. In “Chinatown: An Appreciation”, one of many special features on the disc, directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Pierce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard take turns extolling the virtues of the film over the course of half an hour, taking a more technical guide to the movie’s many accomplishments of filmmaking and storytelling than often seen on these sorts of praise-heavy features.

Soderbergh in particular provides astute analysis of the ways Polanski uses his camera to subtly enhance the film’s mood, such as the repeated following shots, pushing just behind private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson); the handheld shots that push in slightly on the film’s violence; and the long takes that often include brilliant transitions, such as an establishing shot of a house that lingers until Gittes pulls into the foreground with his car. This expertise, though, leaves a film writer scrounging for bits Soderbergh doesn’t mention (my favorite: a hard cut from a barbershop, where the barber begins telling Gittes a joke to calm him down after an altercation with another customer, to Gittes back in the office, telling the joke in full to his associates) — only to have them scooped up by director David Fincher, who participates in a commentary track with the film’s screenwriter, Robert Towne.

I can say, as so many others have and will, that Chinatown‘s visual complexities look great on this high-definition transfer, perfectly capturing the Calfiornia sunlight and noir-ish shadows that the movie places in such arresting contrast. Many years and countless appreciations later, Chinatown remains a smart, involving, great-looking movie; maybe Polanski’s best.

Along with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Chinatown was part of a mini-reinvention of the private eye subgenre, filtering ’40s film-noir classicism through the cynicism and complexity of ’70s auteur cinema (and the accompanying loosened content restrictions; in Chinatown, Polanski is able to depict a 1937 story with 1974 freedoms). The set-up has a perfect noir twist: a wife, Evelyn Mulwray, comes to Gittes and asks him to spy on her philandering husband. After doing the job, he’s visited by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who never hired anyone; her husband and Gittes were set up, and Gittes wants to find out why.

We never learn a great deal about Gittes’ personal life; outwardly, he’s more successful and less hard-luck than a lot of his classic counterparts, comfortable enough to hire two assistants and even, early in the movie, attempt to turn away business. Later in the film, when talking to Evelyn about his knotty investigation, he says: “This hasn’t happened to me for a long time.” She notices his reticence to provide more details: “You don’t like to talk about the past, do you?”

Indeed, Gittes isn’t burdened with excessive backstory; we eventually find out that he used to be a cop, and that he’s resourceful and tenacious if not always as far ahead as he’d like to be. Until the movie’s final stretch, when he fully realizes how little control he has over his case, we don’t see much about how he really feels about anything, apart from his sardonic Nicholson-ness.

Yet as recognizably Nicholsonian as the performance is, Chinatown clearly comes before the advent of Jack Being Jack (I’d place the earliest traces of that syndrome – sometimes a delightful syndrome, granted — somewhere around The Shining in 1980). On the commentary, Towne admits to being “well aware” of “Jack’s capacity for indignation” and how that informed the character; Fincher theorizes that this may be the quintessential Nicholson performance, and he may be right.

Maybe it’s simmering indignation that spurs Jake’s continuing investigation. After the initial Mulwray job, no one is paying him, and he never expresses an abiding interest in justice, though he is an ex-cop. He likes Evelyn, but doesn’t particularly open up to her, or come to know her very well. But as we see in the barbershop scene, he gets riled up when his motivations and reputation are questioned.

By the end, that Nicholson/Gittes indignation could be taken as on behalf of his entire city: the shifting of water and land rights that comprise Chinatown‘s central plot affect all of Los Angeles. (Interestingly, the complexities and shadiness of urban planning — so unsexy on the surface yet fascinating as dramatized in the film — have been repeatedly repurposed for inventive kid-friendly movies: both Who Framed Roger Rabbit and especially the recent Rango have echoes of Polanski’s film.)

Polanski, according to the Blu-Ray’s behind-the-scenes materials, took Chinatown more as a for-hire gig. Perhaps this gives the film it’s intense, no-frills focus that brings Towne’s screenplay to such indelible life. The movie is stylish, to be sure, but it also has what Fincher in the commentary calls a “dead simple” directness that complements the story’s well-honed ins and outs.

The disc’s featurettes (“The Beginning and The End”, “The Filming”, and “The Legacy”) showcase the film’s major players: Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans. Only Towne participates in the commentary with Fincher which, given its occasional long pauses, has a fragmented, perhaps edited feel to it. Even so, Towne offers insights that will be of interest to any fan of movie, while Fincher makes a film-literate stand-in for those fans, prompting him with questions about screenwriting and filmmaking. At one point, Fincher asks Towne when he realized the movie worked as well as it does; Towne reports that even at an early screening, everyone was convinced they had a disaster on their hands.

It wasn’t, of course, but in an odd way, that ironic anecdote fits the way the movie accumulates power, growing from great entertainment into something more. Chinatown begins as an archetypal private detective story; it ends as a definitive one.

RATING 9 / 10