One of the great American films of the ’70s, Chinatown is an expansive revision of the style and themes of the film noir thrillers that proliferated in Hollywood after the Second World War. Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes is the perfect incarnation of the traditional private eye, whilst Faye Dunaway, John Huston and a host of small-part players breathe vivid life into ‘types’ drawn from the pages of such hardboiled writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Robert Towne’s intricate script draws inspiration from The Maltese Falcon (directed by Huston) and The Big Sleep, but it also stands on its own merits. Beyond the pleasure of unravelling a wonderfully complex plot, Towne manages to provide a compelling portrait of Los Angeles in the 1930s, where greed and corruption lurk beneath the sunny surfaces as the city is starved of water during a heat wave.
Roman Polanski’s brilliant direction extends the moral and stylistic boundaries of the detective thriller. Filming in wide-screen, he often presents the chief protagonists in close-up and the machinations of the intrigue in long-shot. Working out from the black-and-white credits sequence, he employs a sepia-based colour tonality to capture the sense of physical and emotional waste that’s at the heart of the story. The director’s black sense of humour is evident in the portrayal of the cynical, image-conscious Gittes, who is unprepared for the dark secret his supposedly routine investigation uncovers.