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Review by Andrew Hicks
4 stars out of 4
Roman Polanski didn't impress me too much with ROSEMARY'S
BABY, the boring tale of Satan impregnating Mia Farrow, but he won
back my admiration with the film noirish CHINATOWN. This detective
flick takes its cues from the great noir films of the '30s and '40s
(comparisons to THE MALTESE FALCON spring instantly to mind), but has
its own cynical view that doesn't let good automatically win out all the
time. It also has Faye Dunaway's breasts.
Jack Nicholson, in one of his best all-time roles, plays J.J. Gittes,
a private eye who makes money off husbands who suspect their wife is
cheating on them, and vice versa. He insists it's an honest living and
enjoys all the publicity he receives, until a woman pretending to be the
wife of the head of the water company uses him to frame the poor guy.
Dunaway, as the real wife, is mad as hell and threatens to sue
Gittes. But he's just as mad as she is that his reputation as photographer
of infedity could be tarnished like this, and offers to help get to the
bottom of it. The plot turns out to be one of those kooky real estate
schemes, involving L.A.'s perpetual water shortage and a bunch of
orange groves the water is secretely being rerouted to. All in all, it's
going to gross the bad guys about $30 million.
Complicating matters somewhat, Dunaway's husband turns up
dead after about the first 30 minutes (drowned, of course) and no one
knows who perpetrated his death. Could it be Dunaway herself, the
femme fatale? Or Dunaway's shady father (John Huston), who was once
partners with the dead man? Or the crooked policeman Gittes once
worked with in Chinatown? Or did Mrs. Peacock kill Colonel Mustard
in the study? You'll have to watch to find out.
Nicholson is perfect in the role of Gittes -- innately cool and tough
yet completely human and flawed. He has his own strange code of ethics
(it's okay to profit from adultery, etc.) but finds himself violating this
as he lets down his guard with Dunaway. He even spends almost one-third of
the film wearing a giant bandage on his nose, after Polanski himself
slices it up, to exemplify the fact that he isn't an untouachable movie
hero. If there's any detective movie successor to Humphrey Bogart it's
Nicholson in CHINATOWN.
CHINATOWN is one of those rare crime movies that doesn't
overexplain each one of its plot elements so that it won't confuse even
the most idiotic moviegoers. I'm so used to having every plot twist fed to
me that CHINATOWN almost lost me at the end with its subtlety. God
forbid that I should actually have to think about what's happening on the
screen and piece together some of the clues onscreen, but that's part of
Polanski's genius in this film. Now I'm starting to think maybe I missed
something in ROSEMARY'S BABY...
Copyright © 1997 Andrew Hicks