Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski.

Private Eye Jake Gittes is hired to spy on a wandering husband. They've both been set up: it's a manufactured scandal against the city Water Commissioner. (Or was it just an attempt to find the hidden daughter?) Jake wants to find out why and who's pulling the strings.

He should have left it alone. He goes farther into corruption and human misery than we could have imagined. In the end there is no justice, no one is saved. He might have known that in advance. The lessons of his earlier life in Chinatown are always with him. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" doesn't mean "we don't care". It means "we can't help."

Keeping with the hardboiled formula of Hammet and Chandler, we see everything from Jake's perspective and have to assemble the clues and discover the truth as he does. Jack Nicholson is in every scene. It's both an homage to and an updating of the LA detective films of the 1940s. Now we have color and widescreen aspect ratio, and Nicholson has an unalterably contemporary persona, serving as a bridge between now and then. Our presumptions help us follow the plot: we know that vast graft and corruption must accompany any public works or city expansion.

Jake is a prosperous PI. Marlowe had only one shabby office and no employees, but he didn't take "marital" cases. He was more of a knight errant. Jake has a bit of that. He's no angel, but there are things he won't do, a contrast with both the dead husband (who seemed entirely decent) and the evil billionaire father, satanic in his greed and lusts. (John Huston, director of several of the hardboiled and noir classics).

Faye Dunaway hides and reveals so much at the same time. As Mickey Rourke describes her in Barfly: "She looks like a stressed goddess." Playing against the formula, she is not a femme fatale, just a conflicted woman trying to protect someone else.

The props and costumes are incredibly rich and convincing, miles ahead of the standard period film. Movies of the original time didn't have the budgets to do this level.

Beautiful, seductive Jerry Goldsmith score, written in 10 days. Using horns instead of saxes or violins was just perfect.

Available on Blu-ray. Uncensored, adulatory commentary from big fan David Fincher and writer Robert Towne.