Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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Film #194


A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on to a scheme of murder that has something to do with water.

Year 1, Day 191

BEFORE: Chinatown has the honor of being the first Roman Polanski film of this movie marathon and second overall (I saw The Pianist before the marathon started). This film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture but only won one award for Best Original Screenplay.

AFTER: While Chinatown failed to win Best Picture (to be fair, it was up against The Godfather: Part II), the film is still looked at today as one of the best film noir and mystery films around. My opinion? Chinatown certainly had the film noir style nailed down but the mystery wasn’t as surprising or shocking as I was expecting.

J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator who is looking into an affair. But this case quickly escalates into murder and a large conspiracy dealing with Los Angeles’ water supply. The film noir style definitely helped the film achieve an air of mystery and darkness that would have been lacking otherwise. For those who don’t know, film noir is a genre that has many specific elements including high contrast in lighting, a city setting, and identifiable characters like the femme fatale. To make some comparisons, Christopher Nolan’s films (like Memento and Insomnia) could be viewed as film noir (see this list), but I see Nolan’s style as more dramatic; much more showy. Chinatown on the other hand still has a similar feeling, dark and perplexing, but is much more reserved. I think Polanski made a good choice going with a much more subtle approach because it let the story unfold naturally instead of having big scenes with forced conflict.

That being said, I did feel the mystery wasn’t all that puzzling. There was just something about it that took away from a moment of shock or surprise. It could be because Polanski does such a great job at showing us the clues as Gittes finds them, but I think it was more when the mystery was explained. You know very early on what is happening with the water supply, you just don’t know every detail. So while you still are amazed at the ultimate ending, it’s not as impactful as it could be if some of the clues were saved for later on in the film.

As far as mysteries go, Chinatown is around average for me. Typically I like the bigger, suspense-driven mysteries where everything comes together at the end after the final piece of the puzzle is unlocked and you see how the previous clues all fit together (see: Christopher Nolan - above). Chinatown just isn’t that type of a film. It’s much more subdued and darker which I enjoyed but didn’t love. A lot of people did love it with 100% on the Tomatometer and if the film noir style fits you, I’d definitely recommend it. It just won’t be everybody’s cup of tea.

RATING: 4 out of 5