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Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

U.S.A.| 1974. Colour. Panavision anamorphic. 131 mins.


With its lovingly created Thirties setting and its pleasingly intricate plot, Chinatown might initially induce nostalgia: by the end, one is all but overwhelmed by the scale of sexual and political corruption uncovered by a detective who assumed he was investigating a minor case of marital infidelity. Jack Nicholson as the private-eye and Faye Dunaway as the woman of mystery inhabit the Bogart-Bacall roles of old, but times have changed. The hero is not as smart as he thinks he is; the heroine’s brittle wit is a cover for neurosis; and the revelation of the woman’s private anguish turns the hero’s habitual cynicism into genuine horror. As the monster who has raped both the land and his daughter, John Huston is perfectly cast: always at his best when playing affable crocodiles and, as the director of The Maltese Falcon, bringing resonant associations that illustrate how far that world of honour and heroism has fallen.
Chinatown assaults the complacencies of the traditional detective yarn, where a knight-errant hero ensured justice was done. Polanski shows the limits of individualism, the invincible conspiracies of power, the irresistible allure of depravity. When Nicholson asks what it has all been for, the villain cries, ‘The future! The future!’ It is a blood-chilling thought in a film that imbues the mystery thriller with the weight of tragedy.

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