In Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski), the cops do as little as possible. The same goes for Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a questionable private eye who makes his living following two-timing husbands and backstabbing dames. What starts as a simple affair investigation quickly turns into a conspiracy involving false identities, fraud, murder, affairs, and gangsters. Okay, so those are a lot of film noir buzzwords, so what makes this movie unique?
As viewers, we completely rely on Gittes for our information. We find the film's clues exactly when he does, never before or after. Furthermore, Gittes is in every single scene of the film, so like it or not, he is our avatar in the investigation. When he's knocked unconscious by gangsters, the shot imitates his condition by fading to black. But unlike many film noir, this movie does not include a voiceover. This keeps the film in the present, solidifying our association with Gittes. A narration would undoubtedly set the action in the past, making Gittes our guide as opposed to our avatar.
Unlike the classic detective films, this neo-noir was shot in color. Instead of highlighting the bright, saturated tones so popular in the 70's, Polanski chose a muted look for the film to emphasize the 1930's Los Angeles setting. The recurring browns and tans of furniture and clothing imitate the dryness as Gittes explores the hoarding of water during a heatwave. The brightest color to appear is red, the shade of something that's too hot. Appropriately, this color appears in two key places: lipstick and blood. In true femme fatale fashion, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) wears the perfect shade of red lipstick when talking to Gittes. Blood, of course, appears a few times in this story; the most noteworthy occurrence is during Gittes's confrontation with a gangster (played by none other than Polanski). To literalize the metaphor of being nosy, the gangster slices open one of Gittes's nostrils, threatening to cut off the rest of it if he doesn't back off. This subsequently leads to a lot of jokes about noses, including my favorite sarcastic exchange in the film (delivered with signature Nicholson smiling contempt):
Yelburton: What happened to your nose?
Jake Gittes: I cut myself shaving.
Yelburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.
Jake Gittes: Only when I breathe.
Of course, it's the film's unexpected twist that truly stuns. I won't give it away, but I think it's no exaggeration to claim it's one of the most shocking in cinematic history. This leads to a final climax that brings about a truly thrilling triangle: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and esteemed director John Huston (as Mulwray's father). It's sexy, it's sinister, and damn if it doesn't smart after you watch it.