"Chinatown" may be Roman Polanski's best film. It may
be Jack Nicholson's best film as well, better than
"Five Easy Pieces" or "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest".
It starts out seemingly an ordinary detective story
and murder mystery. However, the plot gets thicker and
thicker as Nicholson unravels a massive real estate scheme
and learns who is behind it.
Nicholson plays a private investigator who works in
Los Angeles during the 1930s. He is hired by a wife
who suspects her husband is cheating. Nicholson takes
incriminating photos of him, which are stolen and used
to smear the husband, who then appears to have committed
But nothing is as it appears, not the wife, the affair,
or the suicide. Nicholson knows he has been duped,
and is determined to learn the full story, which involves
murder, real estate fraud, and an artificial water shortage.
His investigation also uncovers terrible family secrets
involving the murder victim's wife (Faye Dunaway) and
her cantankerous, powerful father (John Huston).
Nicholson is well cast as the cynical and hard-working
private eye. His character has similarities to Humphrey
Bogart's in "The Maltese Falcon", but Nicholson's is not
as sharp, and is more willing to con his way into gaining
Likewise, Dunaway's character is similar to that of Mary
Astor's in "The Maltese Falcon". Both characters seem
unwilling to tell the full truth, and claim to love their
hired detective, but Dunaway's is much softer and
John Huston, more noted as a director than as an actor,
gives a great performance as the grasping schemer
who also wants the daughter he doesn't deserve to have.
Roman Polanski has a great cameo as the enforcer with a
knife. He will always be known more for his off-camera
life than for the films that he has directed, but perhaps
that isn't as it should be. "Chinatown" is an outstanding
film, perhaps even the best film of the 1970s.
Copyright © 1999 Brian Koller