*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The seventies were the last years of great (American) films. I say films because when we speak of movies nowadays, we allude to blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars, the least amount of controversy, and are mostly inane crowd pleasers with tacked-on endings.
Consider the output of influential film makers Allen during that time: Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Lumet, Ashby, Bogdanovich, to name a few Americans, not to mention European directors Fellini, Bergman, Wertmuller, Truffaut, Argento, Saura, and Bunuel — all household names in those days. Before Spielberg and Lucas came along, not a single one of these made movies appealing to the “summer blockbuster tradition,” and unlike Spielberg or Lucas, they have a body of work filled in high artistic quality with minimum special effects and a lasting mark on future generations.
Polanski is another one of these directors, and with “Chinatown,” he reaches his directorial peak amidst the scandals which seemed to taint everything except his art. One can only imagine him in the forties, living his scandals, and transmuting this into high art — when film-noir was at its darkest. Thankfully he lived in a time which did not demand the “happy ending” or re-shoots in order to be politically correct — else “Chinatown” would have lost its devastating punch and conformed to the norm.
A departure from the horror genre which brought Polanski to stardom, he re-creates an equally grim genre with his jaded view of 1930s Los Angeles down to the choice of the color palette, and using the acting powers of Dunaway and Nicholson to a fantastic effect, he creates haunting characters who can’t be easily dismissed as film-noir archetypes without looking very closely at their reactions, listening to their words, and following their progressive involvement in a plot which threatens to swallow them whole, and ultimately does. And having Huston play Noah Cross — who virtually took noir to its heights with “The Maltese Falcon” — Polanski hits the mark dead center, because Huston is the hardened heart of the corruption in “Chinatown.” In brief scenes he creates a character almost unbearably evil with a hint of madness just underneath, and how he affects the characters around him will pervade the viewer long after the credits have rolled — after all, he is the person who tells Nicholson he has no idea what he’s getting himself into.
I doubt this movie could be made today for reasons stated above. I’m thankful Polanski’s vision prevailed, and not Towne’s. Film-noir is a genre about human darkness, and here, the envelope is pushed all the way through, making this film, in my opinion, rank second to “The Maltese Falcon.”