Being a wannabe filmmaker myself, I’ve gotten a number of books on the subject; indie filmmaking, scriptwriting, etc. Of course, being film books written by either film professionals or film geeks like myself, there are a lot of references to actual released works in terms of what is done right and what is done wrong. In terms of scriptwriting, one of the most cited works in all of screenplay classes and educational materials is Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s neo-noir starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The word perfect is very, very often bandied about this script, but surprisingly, I had never seen the film until now. Now, having seen it, I can say that the word perfect is, well… the perfect word for this script. It is also very nearly the only thing about this one.
Nicholson is Jake Gittes (“Git-ess”), a private investigator who is hired by a Mrs. Mulwray to spy on her husband, who she believes is having an affair. After finding Mr. Mulwray with a young girl and having the story of Mulwray’s affair exposed to the news, he is surprised to find another woman in his office, identifying herself as the real Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway), and who threatens Gittes with a lawsuit over the story. Irked at having been fleeced, he investigates further into the Mulwray scandal, and begins to uncover a plot involving water redistribution in Los Angeles, and a mysterious relationship triangle between Mrs. Mulwray, her father (played by legendary director John Huston), and Mr. Mulwray’s unknown girlfriend. To go any further would be to invite far too many spoilers for this film’s good; if you somehow have managed to avoid said spoilers for Chinatown until now, be thankful – you deserve to go into this film knowing as little as possible. Though, even with foreknowledge of the film’s major plot turns and twists, this is still a surprisingly effective enigma; one that I think will definitely reward multiple viewings, which gets it some bonus points from me. However, aside from the script, there really wasn’t anything overly notable about this one. The performances are excellent, but reserved; the cinematography was definitely A-grade, with some nice use of light and shadow when the scenes called for it, but otherwise unnoticeable; and Polanski’s direction is so seamless that it is virtually invisible. It makes for what might very well be the closest thing to a perfect film as there can be, but therein lies the rub; because there are no flaws, there are no complimentary standout features, and thus there is nothing to really talk about – the film is essentially a wall painted completely a single color, with no deviations in hue or brushstrokes visible. That can be a good thing in ways, and a bad thing in other ways, and it’s largely why I’m stuck in such a tossup as to how to discuss Chinatown.
I haven’t brought up the excellence of the script very much yet, and it is excellent, but what struck me was how by-the-books it seemed to be; each plot point happens here, each turn of characterization or the story happens in response to this, which brings about this next part here, and so on. Then, of course, it hit me: it is so by-the-books because damn near every book about screenwriting that’s been written has been written in response to Chinatown. That’s how good it is; it literally rewrote the formula for writing screenplays. I do love a film, that’s great in every regard, with a standout script, and excellent rewatchability, and in essence, that’s Chinatown in a nutshell. I need not say any more than that. It is unfortunate that this was released in the same year as The Godfather Part II, or this might’ve stood a damn good shot at some of the major Oscars that year. But, thanks to The Godfather being an adapted screenplay and not an original, Robert Towne did manage to walk away with the sole win for this film. And that right there proves there is at least a little justice in this world.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10