Chinatown, the very title suggests something exotic and mysterious. And it’s perhaps even more so due to the fact that almost none of the action takes place in Chinatown, or has anything to do with it. Roman Polanski’s 1974 film pretty much personifies the whole idea of the neo-noir thriller—and quite frankly it very probably transcends the original film-noir genre. It’s an homage that is better than the movies it pays tribute. Everything about the film—from Jack Nicholson’s seedy private eye to Faye Dunaway’s femme fatale to the smallest detail—is perfectly judged. Chinatown is one of those rare films where it’s difficult to find flaws even if you’re looking for them.
As is usually the case with Polanski, much of what makes the film work is atmosphere. For the time the film is on the screen, we truly seem to inhabit 1930s Los Angeles. Polanski completely immerses us in the time and the place in a way few directors can come near. (Compare this with Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Changeling, which has a similar setting, but completely misses that sense of immersion.) In this case, however, Polanski is working from a screenplay that’s very nearly as fascinating in its labyrinthian plotting. The levels of deceit and corruption that are peeled away as the story progresses help in no small measure to generate the atmosphere.
Chinatown is also one of the very few times that Polanski has truly given a film over to its stars to do a great deal of the heavy-lifting. More than any other Polanski film, it’s one that is just plain unthinkable without Nicholson, Dunaway and John Huston. They are all so deeply entrenched in what makes the film work that it’s impossible to even imagine what Chinatown would be like without them. It’s like trying to envision Casablanca (1942) with anyone other than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It can’t be done. But then, were any of these actors—and Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston have some impressive credits—ever quite so good as they are here? They may be part of what makes Chinatown so great, but it might be equally true that Chinatown is part of what makes them great in it.
Does Chinatown qualify as Polanski’s best film? Many have claimed that it does. I’m not inclined to think that it is, but it’s certainly his most popular work—and it’s probably the film of his that works best with an audience in the way it invites responses to both moments of suspense and moments of comedy. People don’t always remember it, but Chinatown is often a very—if somewhat bleakly—funny film in addition to its other qualities. If you’ve never seen it, for goodness’ sake, it’s certainly time you did. If you have seen it, well subsequent viewings of a work this densely textured always pay benefits.