Director Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown,” features a hopeful cast. Choosing stars such as Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, makes for an almost promising delivery of top notch acting and Hollywood worthy filmmaking; however, Polanski fails to rise to the occasion. There are clearly great ideas and good intentions for the plot, yet it lacks the power and suspense to see these qualities through to the end. Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes holds the key to the film’s success. He is given the role of a private eye detective investigating a suspected affair and becomes caught in a web of lies, secrets and scandal. This is the perfect setting for a hard-boiled detective in a film Noir, yet Nicholson struggles to achieve reputability.
His acting is dry, unentertaining and standard at best. His fighting skills are minimal and rather disappointing for a man who embodies a back alley, man of the streets reputation. Nicholson’s character would be better played by Humphrey Bogart. Howard Hawk, director of “The Big Sleep,” is much more skilled at executing a plot and casting believable and creditable characters. Bogart’s character portrays a cleaner and more sophisticated investigator who knows how to incorporate suspense and surprise into his acting. Hawk takes his audience through an on the edge of their seat thrill ride, where Polanski leaves his audience drowsy and grasping for more excitement; more story.
“Chinatown” seems to slowly drag on and on with no real direction or sequence. The story is uncomplicated and straight to the point. Polanski’s fruitless attempts at interjecting twists into the plot are to no avail. The ideas are there, but are poorly carried out. Build-up to suspense is non-existent and there is a complete lack of surprise. Polanski’s choice of lighting and cinematography is on queue with the moods of his characters. Low-key lighting is used in some aspects of the film, but I feel for this type of movie, the use of low lighting should be used throughout. For me, most scenes are too light for the feelings and emotions projected within them. In a scene that is supposed to be dark in mood, the mood of the characters are a bit too light for the subject matter and the lighting is entirely too cheery. For instance, when Nicholson and Dunaway are discussing a terrible secret, the room is well lit and the devastation being felt by Dunaway, as well as the reaction we are supposed to feel from Nicholson do not match the utter terror and horror of what is being revealed.
Even Faye Dunaway’s femme fatale character, Mrs. Mulwray, was a disappointment. She carried the typical traits of the femme fatale and put them to good use, but Polanski made no attempts to make her stand out. Dunaway’s character lacked the overall sauciness and sexual appeal of Hawk’s more daring femme fatale, Lauren Bacall. The dynamics between Bogart and Bacall made for a more believable attraction than that of Dunaway and Nicholson. It is almost as if Polanski tried too hard. Bacall and Bogart’s roles were executed effortlessly, where Nicholson’s and Dunaway’s were a bit strained.
Aside from the last 30 minutes, “Chinatown,” in my opinion fails to satisfy my appetite for mystery and adventure. Although, Polanski finally reaches a minimal level of suspense and shock when the audience realizes the family’s dirty secret. This discovery, coupled with the fate of Mrs. Mulwray is Polanski’s only saving grace. These are the only scenes that are remotely unexpected and show any true emotion or depth of feeling.
For me, due to the overall plot, execution, storyline and quality of acting, the film deserves a C+ at best. However, IMDb gives the film a much higher rating of (8.4). For those who enjoy crime/mystery stories, “Chinatown” delivers. Albeit not over reaching with awe and grandeur, audiences will be left with a certain sense of closure. The mystery will be solved, but will leave no lasting impression. If you’re looking for real adventure and suspense, your time would be better spent elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are fine with mediocre acting and basic plot line, this film might be just fit the bill.