Lowdown: A private detective specialising in taking photos of cheating couples stumbles upon a plot to control Los Angeles’ water supplies.
Chinatown has quite a lot going for it. This 1974 movie features director Roman Polanski at his prime (and still in the USA). It’s got a slew of talented actors, from Jack Nicholson through Faye Dunaway to John Huston. Most importantly, a lot of the reviewers I grew up on regard Chinatown as the manifestation of perfect cinema, the best movie ever.
Me, this was not my first time with Chinatown, but it is worth mentioning Netflix’ HD copy does a huge favour to a film I previously associated with low fi (particularly in the key darker scenes). My question, though, is whether 41 years later Chinatown still is the state of the art?
Nicholson plays private detective Gittes, an ex Los Angeles policeman that nowadays runs a shop for proving to suspecting husbands or wives that their partners are cheating on them through candid photography. But Gittes is conned, and one such job ends up having him inform the newspapers of a high water industry roller cheating when, in fact, it was his wife (Dunaway) that Gittes saw him with. Naturally, it is hard for our Gittes to accept such humiliation; he perseveres with his investigation, almost drowning and almost losing his nose to a thug (Polanski, none the less) in the process. A process that has him slowly, perhaps too slowly for the 21st century viewer, uncover a plot to take over prime time real estate – huge areas – through a water supply con job.
So, does Chinatown still cut it? Well, no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s particular brand of film noir, the characters that always fail even when they try to do good, the characters that turn out to be pulling the strings being the manifestation of pure evil, these are all great. But it’s just that humanity proved it can do better than that by now. Prisoners, a film I had watched on the same day as Chinatown, proves the point. The comparison clearly indicates that it’s not that Chinatown is bad, it just that psychological dramas/thrillers can be far more thrilling, that is all. And they do not even have to rely on the use of modern day digital effects.
Or rather: give it a bit of time, a good director, a good script, and some fine actors and even the best of movies can be eclipsed.
Overall: Chinatown is worth studying as a classic but is no longer the one and only. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.