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Movie of the Day: Chinatown

Check out Bundler's guide to the movie.

Why Watch It Now?

Since its release, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown has been a mainstay on lists of the greatest movies of all-time (see below). Perhaps that will change because of Polanski’s complicated (to put it mildly) personal life as the discourse on whether and/or how to separate art from the artists’ actions evolves. On the other hand, film is a collaborative medium: Robert Towne’s script has been introductory reading in every Screenwriting 101 class or text for decades, and Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston deliver legendary performances. Debates on auteur theory and morality in art aside, Chinatown’s story of power and corruption in the control of natural resources is arguably more relevant today than it has been at any point since its release (or even the fictionalized time period of the plot). In particular, Huston’s Noah Cross, a slick oligarch with an unhealthy fixation on his daughter and a disregard for environmental rights, serves as an eerily prophetic villain, though he was perhaps overshadowed by the actual villains in the White House circa 1974.

Bonus Trivia, Historical Edition: The inspiration for Chinatown comes from three historical political scandals in Los Angeles's early history.

Don’t Take Our Word For It

On the Other Hand…

Chinatown is almost universally praised. However, Gene Siskel expressed dissatisfaction with the movie in his review, “As much as I admire the work of both (Roman) Polanski and (Jack) Nicholson, I found "Chinatown" tedious from beginning to just before the end. . . . The majority of problems are to be found in Polanski's direction of Robert Towne's ("The Last Detail") script. The opening shot of almost every scene has been so artificially overcomposed as to make one aware of Jack Nicholson wearing '30s clothes while standing in a room decorated to look like a '30s room while talking to stereotypes plucked from an assortment of '30s movies.”

A more contemporary critique of the film might take issue with the depiction (or lack thereof) of women characters and minorities, particularly Asians and Asian-Americans given the film is named for a famous Chinese immigrant community in Los Angeles. However, the film’s period setting does provide a counter to these arguments, as the treatment of females and negative views of minorities may have been authentic to the historical setting and, as always, aren’t necessarily the views the filmmakers held (though Polanski’s personal issues muddy the feminist debate). If anything, these issues make the film worth watching or re-watching in order to reassess the film’s legacy.

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