Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jack Nicholson
Watch Chinatown online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“There’s something black in the green part of your eye.” “Oh, that. It’s a… it’s a flaw in the iris.”
Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown, which has just arrived on Netflix UK, is a classic. That’s undeniable. But it feels like classic from 30 years earlier. That’s incredible.
From the moment the Bogart-like Gittes (Jack Nicholson) gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the town’s water supply, the detective flick feels like a remnant of film noir’s heyday brought out into the sun. It still startles that most of his investigating takes place in the daylight, a bleached world of modern prosperity – and, of course, in sumptuous colour.
Polanski’s production design team waste no time in making the most of this updated 1930s palette. Nicholson’s suit gleams white in the desert – a worthy fashion choice for a man who deals in sleaze but distinguishes himself from the “scum down at the bank”. As he uncovers the incestuous corruption at the heart of the city – a flaw that’s both born out of society and gives birth to it – the dirt rubs off. By the end of the film, his suit has gone from white to brown, to grey and, thanks to Polanski’s moody lighting, ultimately black.
It’s that kind of precise attention to detail that gives Chinatown such a unique aesthetic, simultaneously of its time and timeless. The only film that comes close to replicating it is Curtis Hanson’s masterful L.A. Confidential, which takes the symbolic white suit and gives it to a cop (Kevin Spacey), who works in the phoney TV industry.
It’s not just good dress sense they have in common. Both films share that sense of moral decay, a winding story worthy of Raymond Chandler (Confidential’s care of a simplified James Ellroy novel) and the traditional gumshoe perspective that only lets us uncover clues at the same time as the lead detective.
The other thing they share is perhaps the key to it all: Jerry Goldsmith.
Curiously, both films never exploit the composer’s talents: contemporary songs were favoured by each director as the principal accompaniment for scenes, helping establishing the period and tone. So when Goldsmith’s music strikes, it really makes an impact.
The impressionistic piano. The romantic strings. The unpredictable percussion. Jerry’s the perfect fit for this kind of stuff. And while Curtis Hanson had Polanski to follow, Chinatown set the trend. Originally, it actually had a different score altogether from Phillip Lambro – but poor reactions from test audiences prompted producer Robert Evans to suggest bringing in Goldsmith.
The result? Less than 30 minutes of music written and recorded in just 10 days. And every note is a blinder.
“I can’t give you an intellectual feeling why I write what I write. I just feel,” Goldsmith said in an interview. “You can’t mechanically place the emotional elements into a film.”
And that’s exactly what Goldsmith’s score does. The romance comes from the strings, the concealed tension from the piano and percussion and Gittes’ lonely, vulnerable, moral streak? That’s the trumpet. MGM’s favourite soloist Uan Rasey doesn’t just play the music: he sings it. It’s haunting, beautiful, striking stuff.
Arthur Morton, Goldsmith’s arranger, instructed him “to play it sexy—but like it’s not good sex”, Uan told the Wall Street Journal. Now, it’s the best sex your ears are ever going to have.
Combined, the music, Anthea Sylbert’s costume design, the script, the incredible performances, they all add up to an astonishingly perfect movie, probably the best thing Roman Polanski has ever done.
Look closely and everything has a flaw, Chinatown seems to remind us. Over 40 years on, it’s still hard to found one. No wonder it’s so hard to forget.