Chinatown (1974)

Genres - Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Detective Film, Post-Noir (Modern Noir)  |   Run Time - 130 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Mark Deming

By 1974, a lingering national malaise spawned by the killing of John F. Kennedy and fed by the national debate over the Vietnam War, the continued wave of political assassinations, and the sudden rise and slow collapse of the counterculture movement had finally come to a head with the revelations of the Watergate scandal. Chinatown, a glossy variant on the hard-boiled film noir detective pictures of the 1940s, suggested that none of this was new, and that ugly battles over power and profit touched every area of our lives...even the water we drink. In Chinatown, elected officials are the easily purchased pawns of corrupt power brokers whose appetites know no check or balance (ranging from simple greed to the violation of natural law through incest), and the closest thing we have to a honest and moral guide through this fallen world is a private detective -- a man whose career dictates that his loyalty can be purchased for a relatively small fee. While Roman Polanski's expert pacing and the superbly modulated performances of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston would have made Chinatown memorable regardless of its political and cultural contexts, the intelligent but relentless cynicism of Robert Towner's screenplay reflected the dark tone of '40s noir while updating it for a California-fed '70s culture.