AFInity: Chinatown

By Kim Hollis

November 13, 2009

Really, though. What is the big deal about wire hangers?

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Admittedly, I greatly enjoy noir films to start with. Oddly, though, my experiences with movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s is fairly limited, unless they're children's flicks. Having been born in 1968, my opportunities to see such movies were rare anyway, and as an adult, they never really felt like "classics" to me, perhaps because they're too close. Clearly, the AFI disagrees, though, since these two decades have the most representation on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list. I have a lot of catching up to do, clearly.

When my platoon of movie options was laid out in front of me, I saw Chinatown and thought, "Noir, Nicholson...sure, why not?" I was aware of certain pieces of the film. I knew that Jack Nicholson went around with a bandaged nose for a good portion of the action, and I also was aware of the rather famous line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" (though without any real knowledge of what the quote meant). I have to admit that I love that the AFInity project is giving me motivation to see movies I've missed, and opening my eyes to a lot of pop culture references that had been going over my head.

Chinatown weaves a complex web. Set in 1937, the story begins when an LA private eye named Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is hired to investigate the love life of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the department of water and power. After photographing Mulwray with a young woman and exposing him to public embarrassment, he is sued by the man's wife, Evelyn Mulwray - the person he thought had hired him for the job in the first place. Instead, he realizes that he's been had. An impersonator had posed as Mrs. Mulwray for some unknown person's machinations, and things quickly spiral to become far, far worse when Hollis is murdered. The real Evelyn hires Gittes to solve the mystery, and Jake is happy to oblige since his pride and reputation are on the line.


To reveal much more about the story might tarnish the viewing experience for those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say that things get significantly more complicated as Gittes learns more about the woman for whom he is working, and in the process, we discover some things about Gittes himself.

Robert Towne's screenplay is layered and multifaceted, and if you've never seen the movie, I can promise that you will have no idea where it's going. It's fascinating to me that he was able to draw such inspiration from something that seems as mundane as historical disputes over land and water rights in southern California, because while this is an important element of the plot, Chinatown eventually goes somewhere else entirely. It's not pretty, either. Like films that fall into the noir genre, Chinatown explores the seedier side of humanity, and no character is exempt from pointed scrutiny.

Thanks to masterful performances from top to bottom, the nuances of these characters are allowed to emerge subtly and gradually. Foremost amongst these actors, of course, is Nicholson. A lot of people criticize Nicholson for "playing Jack" in his variegated roles, but I believe that at this point in his career, his characters were distinct and even exceptional. Consider that the Chinatown performance was for a 1974 film, and he played Gittes as a tough, smart cop with just a hint of damage in his background. The following year, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his Randle McMurphy was a different kind of character altogether - manic, overtly influential and keenly intuitive. Both films are career-defining in their own way, and the notion that Nicholson had two films like these in successive years is staggering. (We'll get to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest later in the AFInity project. I'm looking forward to watching it again.)

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