It may have been released in 1974, but Roman Polanski’s Technicolor noir is as good as, if not better than, the best of the classic film-noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, in fact, to say that it’s simply one of the best films ever made.
It’s a rare thing indeed for a film to be without its flaws – just think of the things we could do without in even the most exalted masterpieces: the last fifth of Apocalypse Now, for example, with the bloated Brando mumbling poetry as Coppola watches on in the hope that it’ll pass for profundity; or think of the penny dreadful ‘Rosebud’ nonsense in that revered monolith, Citizen Kane.
Chinatown, though, contains nothing inessential. Nor does it have any real faults; it’s successful in practically every department, from the incredible screenplay right the way through to casting, acting, direction, cinematography, set design, and editing. Even the score is fantastic, despite being written and recorded in only ten days.
There are surely countless inscrutable reasons for why everything fell into place as it did, but the film’s starting point and biggest strength is its Oscar-winning script by Robert Towne. It’s now recognised as one of the best ever written, and a staple in screenwriting courses the world over, but the version that made it to the screen deviates considerably from the original, thanks largely to director Roman Polanski.
Polanski, despite being brought to the project later on by producer Robert Evans, had behind him a string of critical and commercial successes and was anything but a servile director-for-hire. He fought with Towne over changes to the script and succeeded in making several alterations, most notably to the film’s climax. In Towne’s original version, the final scene is far gentler, but Polanski demanded a brutal ending. Many have speculated that Polanski’s world-view changed dramatically following the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family in August 1969, and that this in some way led to his decision to make such an important and pessimistic change to the ending of Towne’s script.
Many have speculated that Polanski’s world-view changed dramatically following the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family.
Ultimately, though, the actual reason for the alteration matters little; what’s important is its inestimable benefit to the film as a whole. The tragic final scene (which, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen it, doesn’t need revealing) is absolutely necessary. It’s inevitable and yet you never believe it’ll actually happen. When it does, you’re as stunned as Jake Gittes, who for the first time in the film can only stand by and watch, powerless. It’s at this point that his partner, who has to drag him away from the scene, utters the immortal line, "Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown."
It’s a pretty gnomic expression, but this is precisely its beauty. Part of the reason why this oddly dismissive line is so memorable is because of its vagueness, because it’s so clearly a metaphor. It’s the kind of line written to be thought-over, and despite being a mere five words long, it sums up the tone of the entire film.
Taken literally, Jake’s partner is implying that in this part of town anything goes. There are mentions of Chinatown throughout the film, and Jake’s had some ill-fortune there before (though it’s never revealed what took place the first time around). Really, though, its meaning is much broader. The lawlessness isn’t limited to Chinatown: those with power and wealth are above the law no matter where the location. In a sense, Jake’s colleague is really just offering him advice: don’t bother trying to battle rich, powerful enemies, he implies, there’s nothing you or I can do to change the way things are.
But the quote takes on an even larger meaning when you consider that this sense of futility and disillusionment wasn’t limited to the world of the film. Around the time of the release of Chinatown, the American public were in a state of despair. By the early to mid ‘70s, the idealism of the ‘60s was long gone, the public had been jolted out of its complacency after witnessing governmental abuses of power everywhere from Watergate to Vietnam. The government, just like Jake’s wealthy antagonist Noah Cross, were getting away with murder. Nothing could be done, and powerlessness bred apathy. The public may as well have shaken their heads and told each other, ‘Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.’
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