Chinatown (1974) — Sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”

Heather’s rating: Further proof that the vast majority of Oscar winners serve no purpose other than to get more use out of the STOP button on your remote.

Heather’s review: I really don’t think I could be a private investigator. My number one worst job imaginable is a police officer or a doctor who has to break the bad news that a family member has died. Slightly less traumatic would be private investigator, a job where one has to sneak around like a criminal and invade someone’s privacy who at best is innocent and at worst is baking their cakes in someone else’s oven. The thought of having to break the news to some heart-broken man or woman that their deepestr trust has been shattered makes my skin crawl. I don’t like seeing people hurt, and I’m not a voyeur, so really there’s nothing in it for me. But where would our noir films be without this mainstay of the genre?

Chinatown opens with private eye J.J. Gittes (Nicholson), fresh from breaking bad news to one client, walking straight into a plea from a beautiful woman to spy on her spouse, whom she suspects is cheating. This is not just any jilted wife, though. This is Evelyn Mulray, wife of the city’s rich water and power engineer, Hollis Mulray. At first Gittes tries to talk Mrs. M out of having him spy on her husband (Why? That’s how he makes his money!) but she’s having none of that and assures him she will pay him well.

A couple of days later Gittes gets a visit from another woman who turns out to be the real Mrs. Mulray (Dunaway) and demands that Gittes stop spying on her husband or she will sue. Gittes decides to talk to Mr. Mulray in order to figure out what’s going on, but that turns out to be a problem, as he turns up with a nasty case of “drowned.” Deceit, incest, and chases through orange groves ensue. Gittes is determined to pursue this mystery as curiousity gets the best of him and about half of his nose.

I’ve never watched any newer films done in the noir style, and the only reason I decided to review this movie instead of my original choice, The Maltese Falcon, is because I like Jack Nicholson. Mostly I like listening to his voice (and watching his insane eyebrow contortions, which are rivaled only by Jack Black and various Muppets). I’m a sucker for a unique voice, a la Sean Connery, and I’ll sit through nearly any movie if it has a mellifluous orator. I’m sure you’re all dying to know my top talkers so here they are (in no certain order): James Earl Jones, Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, ANY male with an Australian or British accent, and Hugo Weaving’s fantastic “V” voice.

Mmmm… V

Huh? What? Oh, sorry. So anyway had it not been for Nicholson I probably wouldn’t have given Chinatown a second glance, as I like my noir films like Ashton Kutcher likes his women. I took the plunge and I have to admit I’m disappointed.

We watch noir for its manly men and voluptuous femme fatals, the mystery that keeps us guessing, the funny-looking old cars and intriguing characters with cigarettes surgically attached to their mouths. The cars and the smoking were there, but the feel that I love about noir films just wasn’t there.

The pacing in this film was painfully slow, to the point that I found myself clipping my cats’ claws and cleaning their litter boxes in the middle of the movie. Now one would think that with a pace that slow the plot would be easy to keep up with. Yet, like any murder mystery, there are layers of twists and little clues that make it crucial for the viewer to keep ze eyes glued to ze screen. You can guess how well I was able to keep up with that kind of plot in a movie that I found less entertaining than scooping up cat droppings. Note, movie: If you’re going for suspense and action, do NOT have your plot revolve around some scheme involving the city’s water supply and real estate.

Also I have no idea what was going on with the sound in this film, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard such misplaced effects. Just off the top of my head, I remember a scene where Gettis and Mulray are in bed, all post-coitus, and loud footsteps can distinctly be heard. At first I thought it was intentional, and that they were about to be attacked by someone. Nope. Just random, heavy, offscreen footsteps. Even worse than that was a scene were Gettis and Mulray are in a car together, windows rolled up, and when she shouts it echoes like she was standing in a hangar bay or something. Really? How could you miss something like that during editing?

What really turns the movie into such a mess is the feeling that things were just tossed in here and there. Pointless twists, extra characters, and settings were thrown in and then forgotten to the point that my friend and I were constantly saying “What? Well, who was that guy? What was the point of that? Who’s friggin’ house are we at NOW?” And for that matter, I still don’t get why this movie is called “Chinatown!” There were half-hearted hints at Gittes’s previous life working for the DA there, but that’s no foundation for the title of a movie.

To add to the confusion we have a sex scene seemingly sparked by Gettis’s butchered nose and Mrs. Mulray’s black speck in her iris. I don’t know about you, but nothing gets me hotter than lacerated flesh and eye imperfections. On that note there’s no chemistry at all between the two main characters, much less anyone else in the cast. I cared about no one in this film. The only feeling I had for any of the characters was empathy, because they all seemed as bored by the this movie as I was.

Didja Notice?

  • Eye flaws are sexy!
  • Exciting orange grove chase action! Gruesome crutch beatings!
  • Roman Polanski’s cameo.
  • Alright, so Roman “Man with Knife” Polanski threatens to cut Gettis’s nose off and feed it to his goldfish. Since when are goldfish carnivores? Also, a goldfish? Really? I mean an angry kitten would be more threatening than a goldfish.

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