John Huston made a name for himself as a director for pretty much creating the film noir in the 1940s. And in “Chinatown”, he steps in front of the camera while a young Roman Polanski takes over as director.
Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a character as memorable as Bogart’s Sam Spade. It’s a grueling role – Nicholson appears in nearly every scene. No small task for a film clocking in at 130 minutes. But it’s essential to the suspense. As events unfold in front of Gittes, we’re just as shocked as he is.
In true noir fashion, Gittes is hired by a beautiful woman pretending to be a damsel in distress. In this case, Faye Dunaway plays Mrs. Mulray and is just as brilliant as Nicholson in an equally complex role. Very early in the film, Gittes realizes he’s in way over his head. The film follows him as he unravels a corruption that involving tainting the water supply…and something even more perverse. Ultimately, the film climaxes in a flood of explanation and ends on an incredibly bleak note.
Nevertheless, the film is a perfect storm of great direction, writing, and acting in a great film. Unfortunately the film received its only win out of eleven (overshadowed by a little film called “Godfather II”) for Robert Towne’s original screenplay. “Chinatown” deconstructed noirs like Huston’s earlier films to such a great extent that few crime films have been attempted since, and certainly even fewer are as good. Even the U.S. Library of Congress has put it in the National Film Registry because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”