(Roman Polanski, USA, 1974)


Roman Polanski has often presented himself as the Total Filmmaker, but Chinatown, singularly in his career, gained its richness from the intense (and not always easy) collaboration of director, writer, star and producer.

Robert Towne’s script is justly regarded as a classic. Into a superbly crafted mystery story – in which casual clues and set-ups become meaningful only far later in the movie or on repeat viewings – Towne mixes political resonances from America’s past and present, religious and apocalyptic symbolism, and a distinctively modern variant on the doomed film noir anti-hero who grasps little, is easily manipulated and blunders into catastrophe.

Polanski added extra dimensions to the project, aided and abetted by actor Jack Nicholson and producer Robert Evans. Rather than use standard-issue elements of the slick, neo-noir style, he opened up the space and colour palette of the genre, generating an atmosphere both ripe and disquieting.

He builds the film on a sophisticated register of subtle, dynamic motifs – blind or prying eyes, Oriental design flourishes and a full, grotesque gallery of physical flaws and deformities.

Less expectedly, this noir tale allowed Polanski to reinvigorate his own bleakly absurdist view of existence, projected for the first time onto a broad social canvas. Polanski and Towne together give us a ferocious portrait of a malign, diseased and infinitely reproducible patriarchy, signalling an even less-expected feminist turn in the director’s sensibility.

Part of a cycle of pessimistic ’70s mystery thrillers, including The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Parallax View (1974), and anticipating the epic crime fictions of James Ellroy, Chinatown keys into the disillusioned mood of the Watergate era as it lays bare the history of a city built on "water and power".

MORE Polanski: Cul-de-Sac, Death and the Maiden, The Fat and the Lean, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Repulsion, The Tenant, Tess, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Knife in the Water

© Adrian Martin June 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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