It's a film that truly earned the title "classic" not just because it's more than 20 years old. If you get cable, TCM is airing Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway at 1:00 am Eastern/10:00pm Pacific tonight. If I was asked for a list of my Top Ten Favorite Films, this Roman Polanski feature would be on the list. I heard Martin Scorcese once describe the 1940s movie, Leave Her To Heaven, as "film noir in Technicolor." The same applies to Chinatown. A key character says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with but, believe me, you don't." That statement is really the guts of this movie. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, you should. We got some good movies in the 1970s. This was one of the best.
"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." That's the sentiment of Noah Cross, the corrupt multi-millionaire played perfectly by actor/director John Huston. (Huston directed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and Prizzi's Honor.) Cross is a powerful tycoon who has become respectable in Southern California. Noah Cross says this: "Of course, I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
Chinatown feels almost fresher and more relevant today. Noah Cross' financial practices and motivations are shady. Working class citizens will be hit hard in the wallets. He takes no responsibility for any mess, any hardship that he's caused. When an angry Jake Gittes says to Noah Cross, "What could you buy that you can't already afford?," he could be addressing some rich corporate types today who are getting richer while they cause the poor to get poorer.
I saw Chinatown for the first time within two weeks of its opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I was on vacation from school and hopped on RTD (the bus) from South Central L.A. to Hollywood. Just knowing that Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway were the stars was reason enough to transfer on the busses to see their new movie. However, the reviews were really good. Also, back then, reviewers had the grace and talent to review the essence of the movie without giving too much away. Movie-goers could pay full attention to a 2-hourlong film. Or longer even. Ever been on Twitter? That kind of attention is a dying art. Folks can't watch something for more than ten minutes without having to tweet a comment. They tweet wisecracks. They tweet spoilers. I had no idea what to expect other than a complex murder mystery that carried on the grand tradition of private eye classics like Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941).
I saw an early afternoon screening on a weekday. When the movie ended and the closing credits started to roll, that average movie audience broke out into enthusiastic applause and cheers. I'd never been in an audience of paid ticket-holders at a Hollywood movie who broke out into that kind of applause at the end of a mature movie. Some folks gave it a standing ovation. Then a guy in the back shouted, "It's a movie! They can't see you standing up!" Nevertheless, that audience was part of the thrill of experiencing Chinatown for the first time. A bunch of strangers in the dark became a community of attentive and appreciative fans who fully connected to that work of film art.
Chinatown. Excellent movie. Excellent acting. Excellent script. And I saw for the first time with an excellent audience.