CHINATOWN IS PROBABLY my favorite film. This is not exactly a controversial opinion. Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir masterpiece is routinely cited on “best of all time” lists and, in 2010, was adjudged the greatest movie ever made by critics writing for the Guardian and Observer newspapers. I have seen it dozens of times from start to finish, including in a shimmering 35mm print at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and will often queue up favorite scenes on my well-used DVD. Usually, these are not the show-stopper moments — like the stunning revelation of father-daughter incest or the brutal shoot-’em-up at the end — but quieter bits of business: Jack Nicholson, as private investigator Jake Gittes, genially quizzing a group of senile old ladies who have been used as patsies in an epic real estate scam, or furtively trailing the jittery Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) through the Pasadena streets, the taillight he broke to facilitate the chase serving as a fitful beacon in the dusk.
Other fans will savor different, indelible moments, scenes where the filmmakers’ vision of a sumptuously corrupt 1930s Los Angeles seems flawlessly wrought, from the keen intelligence of Robert Towne’s script and the deft touch of Polanski’s direction to Richard Sylbert’s meticulous production design and the sinuous beauty of Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but won only one, for Towne’s original screenplay, the Oscar voters perhaps being put off by the film’s corrosive vision of their cherished hometown. Looking back now, some of their choices seem almost laughable: The Towering Inferno’s visual bombast triumphing over John Alonzo’s starkly elegant cinematography, or affable old vet Art Carney winning best male lead (for the forgettable Harry and Tonto) over the finest screen actor of his generation giving the performance of his life. But the voters likely had their own backstage, back-stabbing reasons for not favoring foreign upstart Polanski or the suavely self-assured producer, Robert Evans: as Sam Wasson shows in compelling detail in his fine new book The Big Goodbye, the makers of Chinatown were simply too young, too ambitious, too controversial, and their movie, while undeniably brilliant, was like a brash finger stuck in the eye of the Hollywood establishment.
Read the full article: Anatomy of a Neo-Noir Masterpiece – Los Angeles Review of Books