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Friday, February 27, 2009


Perhaps the highest acclaim you can give Chinatown is this: Raymond Chandler would be proud to say he wrote it.

He didn't of course, but the film captures the tone and style of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and is set in the same Los Angeles of the 1930s. Like Chandler, Chinatown features corrupt bureaucrats, crooked cops on the take, devastating family secrets, and pitch-perfect wiseguy dialogue.

Jack Nicholson is J.J. "Jake" Gittes, an ex-cop private eye haunted by his days working the beat in Chinatown. He's hired to find out if the water commissioner (who's holding up a much-desired water bill) is cheating on his wife, not by the man's wife but by a proxy hired to play her. Jake gets the pictures, and almost gets a lawsuit from the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to boot, until the man who wouldn't build a dam is found drowned in a reservoir. Mrs. Mulwray hires Jake to find out what happened to her husband, and the trail leads to land-buying schemes, poisoned orange groves, and a powerful tycoon who knows how to get what he wants. Along the way Jake gets his nose cut, gets shot at, knocked unconscious and starts to fall for the dead man's wife (hey, it is film noir, after all.)

Nicholson is excellent in an Oscar-nominated role (1974 was a remarkable year for actors, the Best Actor nominees: Pacino in Godfather II, Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Albert Finney as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, and the winner, Art Carney for Harry and Tonto.) Nicholson is less outrageous than the Col. Jessup era Jack we're all used to now, the guy who shows up at Laker games and defiantly dates woman half his age. Chinatown shows why he was able to become such a big star in the first place.

The film handles it's twists and revelations very well, better even than the film version of The Big Sleep, which famously never tied off a major storyline because even Chandler himself forgot whodunit. The action builds up over the film's slow first half, leading to a dramatic whirl in the last half hour where everything is turned upside down more than once. The closing scene is emotionally powerful, leading to one of cinema's most famous lines, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

Chinatown gets 8.4 out of 10.

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