In my eyes, Roman Polanski, Polish director residing and working all over the western world due to various circumstances, is the man. Him films are consistently good, in various genres and moods, and he worked in at least four different film industries (Polish, British,
Polanski started as s wunderkind, making his first successes with short films in a renowned
“Knife on the water” was success in
Next step for Polanski was Hollywood, where he achieved his greatest commercial success in 68’ with his first American film, “Rosemary’s Baby”, made along the line of his previous films but in more self-serving production and without bizzare comedy elements that made his previous films so unique. Polanski’s
Having to escape to Europe in 77’ in order to avoid legal persecution, Polanski continued working mostly in France, scoring success with period film “Tell”, thriller “Frantic”, in which Harrison Ford is involved in an 1 ½ hour race after his kidnapped wife, chamber political allegory “Death and the maiden” and finally, Oscar-awarded recount of his early childhood holocaust experiences, “The pianist”.
Polanski’s personal life was always a tabloids subject, sometimes unfairly drawing attention from his film career. His early childhood was scarred by a holocaust family tragedy. He experienced another personal tragedy when his first wife, Sharon Tate, became, together with several guests of the party in their house, a victim of serial killer Charles Manson. His exile from
Now, “Chinatown” is a piece of work: Nominally noir, made in 60ies but with a look behind at 30ies and 40ies classics of noir (who, on the other hand, look at early German expressionists, etc etc), “Chinatown” has all elements that a Chandler book would have: Cynical bum detective, not exactly a perfect character and not exactly a hero; Dame in distress who enters his office one day; A mystery that unravels slowly, but without impression that the viewer will have everything laid on the table at the end; Fight scenes that don’t often finish in main character’s favour, even less often thanks to him; A world full of shady characters, where noone is really good.
Even though “
So basically, it’s a story of moral degradation on personal level of one man on important position, that leads to moral degradation of the society. The story of how he triumphs, regardless of victims, and how it’s given opportunity to continue spreading his corruption to new directions, in this film with the saddest possible ending. This man seems to disease everything he touches. Central character of the story appears to be the person who doesn’t even have very much screen time. This character, Noah Cross, is incidentally played by John Huston, one of directors who established noir genre with his classics “Maltese falcon”, “
There’s also a lot more than a coincidence in Polanski’s cameo that lasts less than five minutes: this sleazy thug slits Gittes’s nose, lending him a bandage that the detective will wear all through the film, one of the details after which the film is remembered the most. Polanski’s short role is impressive; he totally steals the scene with his high-pitched voice and weasel-like appearance. (Apart from this, Polanski has a history of screen appearances. He cast himself as the Professor’s assistant in “Vampire’s ball”, using his own boyish looks to play several years younger character; In “The Tennant”, he casts himself as already an elderly man).
Nicholson’s role is a classic one, from his best years. It is what holds the film together, as he is on the screen almost 100% of the time. He verges on the border of sophisticated and vulgar; He plays a cool Bogartian figure, trampled by the knowledge that this “cool” is just a facade; He has a lot of excellent lines, and he knows just how to say them to keep them ringing in our ears; The subject of “Chinatown”, as the dark past that he’d rather not remember, is brought up rationally, until in the end past that hounds him comes back at him in a violent showdown; In short, Nicholson is perfect. Fay Dunaway is excellent in a very torturous role. A very few lines in the script refer to the suffering of Evelyn Mulwray, the rest, Dunaway does with her acting.
Script by Robert Towne, based on the real L.A. affair of 1930, is clear of plotholes or inconsistencies, and lends a lot of memorable lines to actors; One of the funniest might be, when Noah Cross asks J.J. Gittes whether he slept with Evelyn, Gittes answers: “If you want an answer to that question...”; pause as he stands up; “...I’ll put one of my boys on that case.”