Now, here’s a movie that represents a major achievement in modern noir. The screenplay by Robert Towne is considered a great example of Syd Field’s three-act structure for writing scripts.
Jake Giddes (played with proper laconic ‘tude by Jack Nicholson) is your basic sleazy private eye – making good money from the look of his suits. The set up is as one expects. A woman hires Giddes, because she believes her husband is cheating on her. And, in fact, the husband (a Mr. Mulwray, head of the L.A. Water Department) is seeing another woman. So Giddes takes the pictures to prove it.
Just imagine Giddes’ surprise when another woman shows up (right while he’s telling a joke about Chinese copulation) and says (in essence), “Hello. I’m the real Mrs. Mulwray. I’ve never met you or hired you. Meet my lawyer.”
And that’s just shock number one! Shock number two being when Mr. Mulwray ends up drowned to death in a drainage ditch — during a drought!
Now … at this point, the story takes the kinds of twists and turns that make it a classic hardboiled detective story, on the order of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. But I won’t go into all that for every revelation would be a spoiler. This is a movie that should be seen for the first time (if anybody, in fact, hasn’t seen it yet) with a virgin eye, unsullied by a film reviewer’s summations.
I will say Nicholson delivers the snappy dialogue with just the right amount of snark. And, yet, for all his world-weariness, he still has a heart. Even as he pokes his nose into all the wrong places.
The ending is ominous – downbeat to the point where it crosses over from hardboiled crime fiction to noir.
A bravura tale of local political corruption and family dysfunction, Chinatown will stand the test of time as one of the great neo-noir films of the 1970s.
Plus I’ll never be able to hear the words, “My sister. My daughter,” without mocking them, again and again.
Naturally, I’m giving this one two thumbs up!