"Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown" – five simple words perfectly encapsulating the deceit, corruption, and destruction wrought by the abuse of power. And five simple words that also capture the 130-odd minutes of arcane noir-ish plotting that preceded it. It’s an iconic parting gesture from an equally, and deservedly, iconic film.
The Jake in question is Jake Gettes (Jack Nicholson) who has been hired to investigate a bigwig in the Los Angeles water and power bureaucracy on the premise of adultery. But soon enough he’s entangled in a byzantine plot to corruptly purchase land in the Californian desert and redirect water through a massive aqueduct to LA against the wishes of local residents. Then he stumbles across incest and other various skeletons in various closets. Somewhat against type, Nicholson’s Gettes is not the sneering, confident huckster we have come to expect from Jack or cinema detective gumshoes – he’s fallible, confused and occasionally wrong.
Based loosely on the Californian Water Wars at the end of the 19th century, Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s first film in the US after the murder of his wife and unborn child by the Manson Family in 1969. Little wonder then that the film reeks of pessimism, threats of violence and injustice. Nicholson sports a bandage for most of the film, covering a knife wound perpetrated by a small time hood played by, you guessed it, Polanski. It’s a reminder that, try as you might, it’s impossible to hide the impact of greed and violence. In the end, the little guys (farmers, the poor, immigrants) are scorched by the evils of capitalism, left figuratively and literally out to dry. Previous transfers of this 1974 film have been left wanting so it’s a relief this rerelease is the definitive version of a true classic.