Chinatown may be one of the best movies ever made, and I do not throw that term around loosely. When people argue about the G.O.A.T movie, we always hear about films like the Godfather, Citizen Kane and Casablanca. For some reason, Chinatown is completely neglected. This is utter bullshit. After watching it for the first time about 2 weeks ago, I am embarrassed it has taken me this long to see it. As with most of you reading this, I assumed it was another old movie where the pacing is slow and you quickly get bored after 20 minutes. I could not be more wrong. Let me explain;
3. Ahead of its time
Now I know how often critics, teachers or even parents go on about older movies. They tell you how amazing it is, you go and watch it and low and behold, it is slow paced and very boring. But Chinatown is different. The pacing of this film is perfect. From the opening, you will be hooked – hooked in a way that is different to modern films. It has no second act bore, no scenes that feel like they could have been cut in half and no 15 minute long conversations. Chinatown moves fast.
I believe this comes down to Roman Polanski’s Directing and Sam O’ Steen’s editing. While Polanski is an evil person (we will not delve into that), he understands how to keep an audience glued to the screen. The film doesn’t move like 70’s movies used to. It has no transitions, no montages, no shots of anyone driving or walking aimlessly. The film is bare bones. Polanski and Steen keep it lean. They don’t waste a single second of this films run time. As a result, the audience is gripped from the moment the film begins. It effectively makes the viewers understand that they must pay attention or they will miss out on pivotal plot points.
2. Jack Fucking Nicholson
I think everyone associates Jack Nicholson with a specific role. Similar to Johnny Depp, the public has type casted him as playing these outlandish and crazy characters. The Shining, Batman, the Departed – while he is famous for these, it is not necessarily the peak of his career. For me, it is his performance in Chinatown. He plays Jake with such a charming arrogance. It’s almost as if every line he delivers brings a small smile to your face. Jack just has this charisma that I have only seen in Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones or Han Solo. This ability to make you like him even when he is clearly a dodgy arsehole.
But when the dramatic scenes come is when we truly seen Nicholson shine. Its nothing over the top like a Brando or Daniel Day Lewis. Instead, his performance exists in the subtleties. An empty expression, a mumble of words, a slight chuckle. Each little action has clearly been thought through by the esteemed actor for days. We see all this culminate in the films ending through a perfect performance by Jack Nicholson. The defeated and hollow expression painted across his face summarises the core themes of the film so simply. His demeanour both transforms from the cocky man at the beginning and reflects exactly how the audience feels.
1. The Script
One thing Chinatown is always respected for is its screenplay. If you google or ask any film buff what the best screenplay of all time is (even if they haven’t seen it) they will almost always say Chinatown and that is for one pivotal reason. The dialogue. Each singular word in this film feels like it has been thought over a hundred times. Every line has its purpose in expanding the story and adding layers to the characters. In addition, it slowly feeds you information at a perfect rate. Every time you may feel a bit of boredom creeping in, Polanski and Robert Towne give you just enough information to suck you right back in. They balance this all without giving away the killer and without confusing the audience – a very challenging task.
Ultimately, Chinatown is so incredible because of its script. It is lean, it is tight and it will keep you hooked unlike any movie has before. Do not make the mistake I did and dismiss this film for so long simply because its old. If you love film or want to be screenwriter, turn on stan right now and watch this film.