I’ve never seen … Chinatown

Graeme Virtue
Photograph: Ronald Grant

Despite the eternal sunshine, not all stories set in Los Angeles cast much of a shadow. Chinatown (1974) is one of those perceived classics that has left a genuinely lasting mark. A buzzy hit on release, it claimed an Oscar for its screenwriter Robert Towne from a raft of 11 nominations that also recognised director Roman Polanski, and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

In the decades since, it has joined the Wizard of Oz, Some Like It Hot and Casablanca in that nebulous canon of movies with final lines that have become assimilated into pop culture. Forget it? Not likely. Even in 2020, books are still being written about this stylish and unsettling noir. The latest tome – Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood – identifies it as the final burst of a particular strain of individualistic film-making about to be steamrollered by the blockbuster era. Jaws would arrive the following summer, its hungry shark heralding the arrival of a ruthless new Hollywood machine.

Something about that combination of longevity and notoriety – plus the fact that I’d long been aware of the incestuous twist that the story pivots on – meant that I’d never got round to visiting Chinatown. It wasn’t just foreknowledge of the plot that made it seem skippable; if you are trying to socially distance yourself from the disgraced Polanski’s work, then his cameo as a spiffed-up, knife-wielding hood who makes a right mess of Nicholson’s nose is doubly upsetting.

What made me want to belatedly seek it out was Edward Norton’s press tour for Motherless Brooklyn, the bumpy but enjoyable 1950s private eye tale he starred in, adapted and directed. In interviews, Norton suggested Chinatown and his passion project were both period pieces that were actually expressions of contemporary cynicism. Though set in 1937, Chinatown was made under Nixon; the NYC-set Motherless Brooklyn tussled with the corrupt spectre of Trump.

There is an enjoyable strain of LA neo-noirs such as Inherent Vice, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Under the Silver Lake where doofus would-be detectives shamble into morally murky conspiracies. These heroes tend to be more half-baked than hard-boiled. Perhaps that’s why I was relatively unprepared for Nicholson’s sleek performance. As former cop turned private investigator JJ “Jake” Gittes, he is tough, prickly and capable. It is easy to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio studying this wolfish watchfulness and taking detailed notes, particularly in the early scenes when Gittes is still relatively dapper.

It is both funnier and more shocking than I had assumed. Gambolling sheep are driven through a starchy city hall meeting room by angry farmers. Ominous scratching at an office door turns out to be workmen replacing a dead man’s official signage. There is a scene-stealing turn by a roly-poly coroner who simply cannot stop coughing (not the most relaxing part of the film right now).

Also impressive are the flashes of private dick tradecraft useful in a city where everyone drives everywhere, such as Gittes sliding a cheap pocketwatch under a tyre to clock when it leaves, or bashing in a brake light to make his quarry easier to track at night. Not that any of this hard-won experience does him much good in the long run.

As he determinedly connects the dots between his original adultery case and a crooked deal that will reshape LA, the psychological wear and tear is echoed by Gittes’s appearance. After an early interrupted shave, he is subsequently drenched, sliced up and beaten with a crutch. Whatever emotional armour he has manifested to protect himself also seems to fracture and fall away, too, particularly when he falls for Dunaway’s Evelyn, a luminous widow burdened with almost unimaginably terrible family secrets.

It stands up as both a melancholy mood piece and satisfying detective story, offbeat but grounded by a shifting yet constant sense of dread, even in the blazing sunshine. My purest moments of enjoyment came when I recognised John Hillerman – the urbane but put-upon Higgins from Magnum, PI – as a smarmy water-board exec getting an early lesson in how persistent and annoying private detectives can be when they intuit that something is decidedly off.

As Gittes’s various leads tighten to become a noose, it sets up the extraordinarily downbeat ending, one that still carries a nihilistic charge even as we drown in nominally gritty TV box sets. Evelyn is killed while trying to escape with her child, her skull tunnelled by a police round (a glimpse at the exit wound leaves no doubt). Gittes – resourceful, tenacious, worldly Gittes – is essentially struck dumb. It all ties in with Chinatown’s dispiriting central thesis. You can be smart enough to solve the mystery. You can be tough enough to sock it to the henchman. But nothing you can do will change the system. That this still feels apposite on a first watch almost five decades later is perhaps the most crushing blow of all.