WHY I HADN'T SEEN IT
It's a combination of Jack Nicholson-phobia and 70's Movie-phobia. The 70's are well known to be a dead zone of American films, with a couple of strong years at the beginning and the end, but an arid wasteland in between (Grease absolutely is part of the wasteland, but at least it's highly entertaining, if atrociously retrograde).
But the Jack Nicholson-phobia was probably stronger. Having now seen Chinatown, I am completely opened up to seeing his other films, while before it was just lodged in my head that he's a dirty old man whose acting style chiefly consists of 'smug.' Ah preconceptions, how you laugh when you force me to give you back.
Starting Chinatown without any idea of what to expect, you can be forgiven for thinking the film is going to be lighthearted. Jack Nicholson rolls from quip to quip with a spirited enthusiasm for his line of work, especially the tawdry bits. He is the hopeful character, strangely un-cynical. So when events start to get dark, really dark, watching him lose his faith only accentuates the soul-crushing power of Chinatown.
Chinatown is a film noir in the light, with some scenes almost shadowless, hypersaturated by the oppressive California sun. The audience stumbles on clues when Jake does; neither is privileged, which gives the creeping sense of dread more immediacy.
The pacing is slow but never laborious, as if Polanski is trying (and succeeding) to seduce you into the film. Each discovery creeps up slowly until the last act, where revelations regarding Evelyn (our femme fatale), her father, and their curious history are furiously dealt.
But oh, the denouement. Chinatown has one of the most honestly bleak conclusions ever filmed, owing to a late rewrite by Roman Polanski of the original script by Robert Towne. Chinatown was Polanski's first Hollywood film after his wife's (Sharon Tate) murder at the hands of the Manson family, and those events undoubtedly darkened his world view.
- First Jack Nicholson film (apart from Batman, but I barely remember that one. As a kid I preferred Batman Returns and Batman Forever (hey, I was a kid! Nipple-suits meant nothing to me!)
- First Faye Dunaway film