“Chinatown”

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Another awesome once-only movie showing!  Definitely one of the great movies of the 20th century.  The plot grabs you, the acting is superb, the look is lush and brilliantly varied.

Los Angeles, 1937. There are lots of guys like J.J. Giddes (Jack Nicholson). They’re easy to find…if you want to find them.

It all begins for gumshoe Giddes when a well-to-do dame walks into his office. Sure, it’s happened before, but nothing has prepared J.J. for this broad or for this tale of political corruption, adultery, murder, and….

Well, nothing has really prepared anyone for this hard boiled tale, which is one of the reasons why it endures. Expertly scripted by Robert Towne and masterfully directed by Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby), Chinatown cemented the career of Jack Nicholson and easily became one of the top ten films of all time. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (though only winning for script; The Godfather Part II is pretty stiff competition, after all).

Take a trip back…to Chinatown.

I saw this when it was first released in 1974.   Though it opened my young eyes to a corruption in municipal affairs that I had never realized could happen, I got a lot more out of it this time.   Everyone in it was terrific — maybe this is my favorite Jack Nicholson movie (though the sandwich scene in Five Easy Pieces is brilliantly done…oh, and Easy Rider…guess I can’t pick just one).  I don’t think I realized that was Roman Polanski with the knife the first time around, either — kind of a creepy little zinger.  This was his last U.S. movie before he fled to avoid the possibility of prison.   I am glad he has kept on making movies, even if they are not all as good as this one.

I was able to see more nuance in the Faye Dunaway role this time.  And I had more appreciation for the masterfully villainous John Huston.  Fortunately (LOL) I didn’t remember the plot very well, so it all rolled out the way the writer and director wanted — one clue at a time.  I can’t think how this movie could be improved upon.   The period clothing and decor still look authentic (that’s not always the case — look at a lot of those old Westerns, for example), and the automobiles — oh, my.

The story is even a valid tragedy — I read that the producer, Robert Evans, had wanted a happy ending but Polanski insisted on a violent end for Dunaway.  It works.

Chinatown was intended as the first installment of a trilogy about California corruptions.   This one was about water and was based on a lot of actual events and people; the second one, called The Two Jakes, was about oil.   Nicholson directed himself in it, and it was not a big hit (I don’t think I saw it, but I sure would like to now).  As a result, the third one, which was to be about land and called Gittes vs. Gittes, didn’t even get made.

It occurs to me that, though they were set in earlier eras, these movies are very relevant to what is now going on:  corporations and special interests riding roughshod over the will of the majority of Americans and helping themselves to our natural resources.  Movies like this can be instructive as well as entertaining.  Best kind.

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