Top 100 Movie Review: No. 024 – Chinatown (1974)

Ranked 024 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).  Watched movie during June 2020.

Cast: Jack Nicholson (J.J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt Escobar), John Hillerman (Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Mulvihill), Belinda Palmer (Katherine Cross)
Director: Roman Polanski     
My rating: 8.0 / 10

In 1937, a woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray hires private investigator J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to follow her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes tails him, hears him publicly refuse to create a new reservoir that would be unsafe, and shoots photographs of him with a young woman, which are published on the front page of the following day’s paper. Back at his office, Gittes is confronted by a woman who informs him she is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and that he can expect a lawsuit for stating that she hired him.

Realising he was set up, Gittes assumes that Hollis Mulwray is the real target. Before he can question him, Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) finds Mr. Mulwray, drowned, from a reservoir. The real Mrs. Mulwray now hires Gittes to investigate his suspicions about the murder of her husband and notices that although there is a drought, huge quantities of water are being released from the reservoir every night. Gittes is warned off by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill and a henchman who slashes one of Gittes’ nostrils. Back at his office, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd), who identifies herself as the imposter Mrs. Mulwray he meet at the start of the movie. She is afraid to identify her employer but tells Gittes to check the day’s obituaries.

Gittes learns that Mulwray was once the business partner of Evelyn’s wealthy father, Noah Cross (John Huston). Over lunch at his personal club, Cross warns Gittes that he does not understand the forces at work, and offers to double Gittes’ fee to search for Mulwray’s missing supposed ‘mistress’. At the hall of records, Gittes discovers that much of the Northwest Valley has recently changed ownership. Investigating the valley, he is attacked by angry landowners who believe he is an agent of the water department attempting to force them out by sabotaging their water supply.

Gittes realises that the water department, which used to be a private company established by Noah Cross and still with people in it who he placed there, is drying up the land so it can be bought at a reduced price and that Mulwray was murdered when he discovered the plan. He discovers that a former retirement home resident is one of the valley’s new landowners who seemingly purchased the property a week after his death. Gittes and Evelyn bluff their way into the home and confirm that the real-estate deals were surreptitiously completed in the names of several of the home’s residents. Their visit is interrupted Mulvihill and his thugs.

After fleeing Mulvihill and his thugs, Gittes and Evelyn hide at Evelyn’s house and sleep together. During the night, Evelyn gets a phone call and must leave suddenly; she warns Gittes that her father is dangerous. Gittes follows Evelyn’s car to a house, where he spies her through the windows comforting Mulwray’s supposed ‘mistress’, Katherine (Belinda Palmer). He accuses Evelyn of holding the woman against her will, but she says Katherine is her sister.

The next day, an anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions’ apartment, where he finds her murdered and Escobar waiting for Gittes’ arrival. Escobar tells him the coroner’s report found salt water in Mulwray’s lungs, indicating that he did not drown in the fresh water of the reservoir. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder and tells Gittes to produce her quickly. At Evelyn’s mansion, Gittes finds her servants packing her things. He realizes her garden pond is salt water and discovers a pair of bifocals in it. He confronts Evelyn about Katherine, whom Evelyn now claims is her daughter. After Gittes slaps her, she tells him that Katherine is her sister and her daughter; her father raped her when she was 15. She says that the glasses are not Mulwray’s, as he did not wear bifocals.

Gittes arranges for the women to flee to Mexico and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler’s home in Chinatown. He summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal. Cross admits his intention to annex the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes accuses Cross of murdering Mulwray. Cross has Mulvihill take the bifocals at gunpoint, and they force Gittes to drive them to the women. When they reach the Chinatown address, the police are already there and detain Gittes. When Cross approaches Katherine, Evelyn shoots him in the arm and starts to drive away with Katherine. The police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released. Lawrence Walsh, one of Gittes’s associates, tells him: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

What’s to Like
The movie’s mystery, the story, the acting, the exploration of the greed of man.

What’s not to Like

This neo-noir mystery film is inspired by the real California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century, by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley.  All of the movie is seen through the main character Gittes’ eyes who is in every scene.  When he is knocked out the movie fades to black.

This movie received 11 Academy Award nominations but only won 1 Award.  The topics were very dark, the incestuous rape of Evelyn by her father Noah Cross could also be seen as what he is doing to the natural resources of the Owens Valley, destroying it forever.  The mystery keeps you involved throughout the movie as we slowly learn what has occurred and why.  In the end the powerful rich man wins, he gets his way with his water and land deals, his daughter is dead and can’t let anyone know of how he raped her, and he takes his daughter’s and his child Katherine away with him to who knows what fate.  An enjoyable mystery with a very dark outcome.  

Academy Awards

  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay – Winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role (Faye Dunaway) – nominee
  • Best Director (Roman Polanski) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography – nominee
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – nominee
  • Best Costume Design – nominee
  • Best Sound – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee
  • Best Music, Original Dramatic Score – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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