Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day Eighteen: Chinatown

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #60
Year: 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway

I'm kind ashamed to admit this, but there's almost certainly something I'm not getting here. I watched Chinatown today, and it wasn't bad. Jack Nicholson was his usually fantastic self, and Faye Dunaway did a serviceable job in her role as well. The noir feel was executed to perfection, and it would be easy to imagine this as a 1940s Bogart picture with oddly pristine Technicolor. But if it did indeed fall among those 1940s Bogart pictures, it would not be talked about in the hushed, reverential tones that it is now. It seems that the very fact that Chinatown is a neonoir and not a first wave noir film has given it some kind of all-time classic status. The problem is, it just isn't that good.

Since Nicholson plays a private eye, it's only a matter of time before there's a mysterious death that needs investigating. The circumstances are peculiar – a waterworks mogul is found with salt water in his lungs although it appears he drowned in fresh water – and, of course, the people with the most motivation to kill him are eventually proved innocent. It's classic Scooby Doo stuff, nothing out of the ordinary. The overarching motivation for just about everyone's actions is a drought in Los Angeles County that requires the diversion of water resources and sees rival corporations and government institutions pulling all kinds of shady stuff to get what they want. This subplot is interesting, but also pretty confusing, especially for those of us who have never lived in a desert and don't know much about water politics – or rather, those of us whose experience with water politics is limited to reading Frank Herbert. Still, it keeps the plot from getting too bogged down in the endless parade of cops and snoops smoking cigarettes, wearing hats, and just generally unning through the Book of Murder Investigation Clich├ęs.

The movie does have one truly phenomenal scene, and one that deserves all the praise it gets. I won't spoil too much, but when J.J. Gittes (Jack's character) does a little bit of snooping after dark and gets asked the question "You know what happens to nosy fellows?", the answer is completely brutal and amazing and dictates a lot of what happens throughout the rest of the film. I guess I would even say the flick is worth watching just for that.

I'm not trying to come down too hard on Chinatown. It isn't terrible, or boring, or anything like that. It just defies all logic that it's the sixtieth greatest movie of all time when it's basically paying tribute to a genre that came before it and, in general, earns far fewer accolades. It's a solid film, though, and Nicholson's performance especially is commendable.

The Good: Nicholson being Nicholson. This is maybe a top five performance for him.

The Bad: It doesn't do anything spectacular. This is the kind of movie you would walk out of the movie theater being satisfied with the way you spent your ten bucks but wouldn't even consider going back to see again.

The Skinny: If it deserves to be on the list, it needs to be way fucking lower than sixtieth. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt because I know if it were in the bottom ten I'd say that was okay. This brings up a point I've been meaning to make though – before too long, look forward to Travesty Week, where I'll take a week and just talk about movies that are universally acclaimed that I don't like. I'm going to hate on movies that everyone loves and get bitched at. It's going to be great reading!


  1. I agree that sixteen is way too high for Chinatown I would probably put at around 150. Travesty Week should be interesting.

  2. Bring on Travesty Week, Brad. Bring it on.

  3. I'm excited for Travesty Week.
    Although sad about this movie in particular.
    Polanski is one of my favorite directors and I consider this to be his true masterpiece.
    Eh, to each his own.

  4. I'm so pumped to do Travesty Week haha. These three comments are three of many from people who want to see it. I'll probably start it Monday. Why not?

    Sorry Andrew...I really wanted to love this movie, I just didn't. Don't think I'm bashing it, because it's competent in every category. It just didn't strike me as special. :(

  5. This movie is a tough one... I had a hard time thinking about which number to put in imdb rating to not overrate or underrate it... As a movie it deserves a really good 8. But the noir (as they call it) in this so cool. The mystery really is rubbed into the movie, not just standing aside.
    IMO better then Vertigo which is considered to be the greatest mystery movie.
    Hard to decide
    Chinatown 9-/10