Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.
dir. Roman Polanski scr. Robert Towne cin. John A. Alonzo with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd
In 100 words: With Chinatown, Polanski and Towne created a world that updates the film noir of the 40s and 50s with something that at every turn feels more insidious, and doubles up on the rich symbolism of its predecessors. Nicholson and Dunaway both embody their archetypes, but twist them enough to make them feel modernist; they’re sadder and more complex than their models were. The rich details of the script’s dialogue offers a lesson in cryptic storytelling without feeling abstract, while Polanski’s direction help make the surprises and revelations fluid. Its commentary on wealth and power lends its story potency and relevance.
Other Movies for Context: This was Polanski’s last American movie before he fled for rape charges. I’ve only seen three of his other films: the creepy, skin-crawling terror of Repulsion (1965) and the richly drawn horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are both awesome. The Pianist (2002) won him the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Director, and I think it’s pretty superb. For modern-day equivalence, I think the closest to getting me this excited was L.A. Confidential (1997), a fantastic noir that comments more on toxic masculinity and hues closer to that than Chinatown.