Thursday, May 16, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #8 - Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

8. Chinatown - Roman Polanski, 1974

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”  These are the legendary words that end this unforgettable 1974 film by Roman Polanski.  Chinatown embodies a place where people go to do things they don’t want other people to see.  Investigating a woman’s claim that her husband is cheating, Detective Jake Gittes stumbles upon another, more insidious crime.  As he digs deeper, he becomes increasingly tangled in a web of lies, corruption, greed, and shameful family secrets.  In one of the best performances of all time, Jack Nicholson embodies a detective who is worn, world-weary, a little frightening, and yet somehow still mostly good and frequently funny. 
Playing with and beautifully utilizing the conventions of the noir genre, Polanski perfectly captures the dread and hopelessness of this world and what happens when people have unquenchable thirsts.  Although the story is more typical crime-thriller fare, because of the fantastic screenplay, excellent direction, and great lead performances, Chinatown works as something much deeper.  It’s a dark, bleak look at the heart of corruption and evil, with a finale that both frustrates and amazes, simply because it takes guts to put something that hopeless on screen.  It’s way over-the-top and frighteningly honest at the same time, and I absolutely love it.

David's Response:

The infamous John Huston and Jack Nicholson
               First of all, I must say I feel truly blessed to have a wife that loves a movie because of its bleakness – the most impactful art is rarely a walk in the park.  Chinatown is, indeed, a truly bleak look into the world of high-level (and low-down) crime, and as with any great film with serious subject matter, it leaves you with a deep sense of unease.  In this case, the film’s final scene works like a sucker punch and left me wanting to crawl into a corner and cry as I nursed my nausea.  Yes, it really is that powerful. 
Polanski understood the impulses of the noir genre well enough to play with our ingrained expectations.  He turns tropes on their head several times, always keeping viewers on their toes.  From femme fatales, to red herrings, to bumbling detectives, all the tropes are there, but nothing is what it seems.  As the story unfolds, and more sordid details are revealed, we join Jake Gittes both in disorientation, curiosity, and fear.  Akin to many more effective horror films, it is a gripping fight-or-flight experience, and one that no true film lover should miss.


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