Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



DIRECTED by Roman Polanski
PRODUCED by Robert Evans
WRITTEN by Robert Towne
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Jerry Goldsmith
PRODUCTION DESIGN by Richard Sylbert

If you tortured me, if you tied me to a chair and showed me videos of George W. Bush for three days straight, if you forced me to choose my favorite film of all time … well, if you read my piece on Tom Jones already, you know where I’m going with this. Some days it’s Tom Jones. Some days it’s Chinatown.

Recreating a different time is tough. Hollywood has only started to get it right since the ’60s and ’70s. Before that, I can’t think of many movies that were more than a simulacrum of what another time might have been. Sure, they got the costumes right, most of the time, and sometimes the sets were fairly realistic. But something about the feel of them just wouldn’t be right. Look at any big Egyptian or Roman epic from the ’50s. They are entirely too shiny. Technicolor required too many lights.

But a handful of pictures make me feel like the filmmakers might actually have taken their cameras through a time machine and just filmed it on the actual locations. Tom Jones is one. Chinatown is another. The location manager did an incredible job of re-creating Los Angeles in the 1930s. Okay, I wasn’t there; I wasn’t even born, but I’ve spent a lot of time in LA and seen a lot of photos, and every shot feels right. The light looks right. These days the San Fernando Valley stretches about 90 miles in all directions, north of LA; back then it was all orange groves, right over the hills. The costumes and the makeup are perfect, too.

Jack Nicholson is wonderful as Jake Gittes, who is not at all like Philip Marlowe. Jake is a snappy dresser, drives a great car, and is in the business for the money. He’s good at his job, and what really gets him is being played for a fool. Faye Dunaway navigates a part that is incredibly conflicted, you feel tension in her every moment she is on screen. And the climactic scene (“She’s my sister … she’s my daughter …”) … well, what can you say? I was completely blindsided, as was everyone else in the audience.

Have to say a word about the music. There are several ways you can do movie music. One is to make it big. Remember the soundtracks to Gone With the Wind, or one of those epics of the ’50s like Ben-Hur, or Lawrence of Arabia? The best modern example is Star Wars. Right from the first note you know you’ve got an exciting picture. Lately we’ve got a lot of movies that go the pop route, and often the music elevates a so-so movie into something more lively, like Pretty Woman. You can’t help tapping your toes. Or you can use it just for emphasis, like Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings in Psycho. The music in Chinatown is used mostly for mood. When this is done well—and I don’t know of any better example than this one—you are hardly even aware it’s there. But next time you watch, listen to the music, see what it does. Jerry Goldsmith is exactly right here.

It all comes together in Chinatown. Everybody did his job. Even the movie poster is one of the all-time bests.

But the real star of the picture, to me, is … Robert Towne. You thought I was going to say Roman Polanski, didn’t you? Well, there is no doubt he is brilliant, no doubt that his contributions to the film (and in particular the ending, which originally was not so dark) are huge, it’s Towne’s script, and this is very much a script-driven film. It is wonderfully complex and interconnected, based on fact, and so, so sad.

Even the enigmatic title is perfect. We never find out what happened to Jake in Chinatown years ago, and we never go there until the end of the film. It has nothing to do with the neighborhood nor with the Chinese people who live there. It’s a state of mind.

“It’s Chinatown, Jake.”