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Chinatown (1974)

by on 2012/03/18

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

* *

Sometimes, rarely, I finish watching a video and am tempted to dash off the following review:

“No . . . just no.”

Were I inclined, I might decorate the language, but to what end? Chinatown, the celebrated tete-a-tete-a-tete of Robert Towne, Roman Polanski, and Jack Nicholson left me feeling kind of meh . . . “Is that all?” and “So what?” and so on.

I watched it — or tried to — twice in the past. With this third attempt, I’m finished. I gave it its chances, completed it, and have already packed it in storage. After I’m done with this writing, I expect I won’t think about it anytime soon.

Yes, I know of its reputation. In film school and broadcasting, I became intimately familiar with the legend of Towne’s screenplay, particularly as a model for narrative theory. As with spiritual matters, however, artistic arguments do not guarantee belief, and I for one don’t believe in Chinatown.

It all involves 1930s private detective Jake Gittes (Nicholson), hired to expose an affair by a California civil servant. His investigation reveals a vast conspiracy of water manipulation, and not really much else. Sure, there are many characters, and as many motivations, though none of them mattered to me in the final analysis.

The story goes a long way to get not-very-far. It’s entirely too deliberate to my mind, slow without being compelling, let alone suspenseful. Even my sneaking suspicion that public utilities weren’t the true reward wasn’t enough to draw me through to whatever really was. I simply didn’t care about any of the hooks. Water distribution? A bog-standard affair? The framing of an unsympathetic character? Who cares?

As I’ve suggested in earlier articles, I’m a bit too old to blame for a so-called MTV attention span. I enjoy my share of lengthy, protracted features. Chinatown is decidedly not one of them.

Could it be an emerging trend, a subset of noir I don’t like, the hard-boiled gumshoe detectives, say, Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep) and Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon)? Not necessarily. If that were the case, then why am I smitten with Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato?

Perhaps the movie-going audiences fetishize Nicholson more than I do. I just don’t find his roguish scoundrel nearly as interesting as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, or Daniel Craig’s latter day James Bond.

And despite the effort having occasional touches I enjoyed — for example, I was fairly impressed with Gittes’ use of watches — they remain so rare, so few and far between, they barely affect the whole. Both the Big Plot Twist and “shock” finale are gimmicky, too little, too late.

In fact, by the end, I suspected there’s as much of a conspiracy to defend Chinatown as there is in its tale to cover up water rerouting. I’m open to being convinced I’m wrong, as with The Godfather and Unforgiven, but only if it means I don’t actually have to re-watch this piece again.

* *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

140 minutes

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