Roman Polanski’s brilliant thriller stars Jack Nicholson as a private eye uncovering corruption in 1930s Los Angeles, a desert town where water equals power.
“Chinatown is an art-house movie in American mainstream drag. Seldom since Hitchcock’s prime had a director displayed such a facility for making a commercial movie that is also a work of art.”
James Verniere, The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, 2002
Private detective films in the days of Humphrey Bogart were in shadowy black and white, but Polanski updated the form for the Watergate era, shooting in colour in the sunny glare of Southern California. For his richly intricate screenplay, Robert Towne researched historic power struggles over the water supply to Los Angeles, creating in tycoon Noah Cross – played by old-guard film director John Huston – one of cinema’s most disturbing villains.
The mystery plot has a classical simplicity, as Nicholson’s private eye Jake Gittes is drawn by his own curiosity into a situation in which he’s dangerously out of his depth, and where he endangers the very thing he sought to protect. The Los Angeles of the 1930s is immaculately recreated, with production design by Richard Sylbert.
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is an alternative 70s riff on the private eye genre. Nicholson himself directed a Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes (1990).