“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” says John Huston’s crooked construction magnate Noah Cross in this remarkable neo-noir by Roman Polanski, now nationally rereleased in cinemas (like Repulsion) in connection with a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. What the passage of time has done for this superlative 1974 film is progressively lessen our sense of its being simply a modern pastiche of the classic 30s gumshoe thrillers. The time-gap has narrowed, and it now looks like a classic in a direct line of succession to those earlier pictures.
Jack Nicholson has the Bogartian role of Jake Gittes, the LA private investigator who sticks his nose into a corrupt conspiracy in the state’s Department of Water and Power. The plan is to create a drought in California, sending farmland prices into a dustbowl slump so that it can be bought cheap and made the site of a colossal new dam, to be sold back at a huge profit back to the taxpayer. Jake gets that nose of his slashed by a goon – an unforgettable cameo for Polanski – but finds himself falling in love with the mysterious Mrs Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) at the centre of the murky plot. The dialogue is crackling (“Are you alone?” – “Isn’t everyone?”) and the set pieces, like the one in the antisemitic old people’s home, are just superb. Polanski brilliantly shows that money and power are not what’s motivating everyone after all. There’s a lower stratum of sexual dysfunction and fear at work, which is difficult, if not impossible to understand:: the ultimate meaning of the chaotic “Chinatown” of the title. Unmissable.
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