“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s not often that you come across a movie with a brilliant and absolutely flawless script. The Godfather and Casablanca fall into this category, and I had heard a lot about them growing up. But I had never even heard of Chinatown until I started putting my list together. Directed by Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, this is a film noir/mystery with a modern bite, and the script is absolutely amazing. In fact, most screenwriting classes and workshops will at least reference Chinatown. The mystery is great and keeps you guessing, and in true film noir fashion, it can get pretty dark. But this is a brilliant and entertaining movie that should be watched by any film fan.

The plot follows Jake Gittes, a private investigator, as he’s hired by a woman to find evidence of her husband’s infidelities. The man ends up being Hollis Mulwray, who is in charge of Los Angeles’s water system and in the middle of an important decision on building a new reservoir to end a drought in Los Angeles. Jake quickly finds that all is not as it seems when he finds himself slapped with a lawsuit for investigating Hollis, and when Hollis is found dead, Jake quickly grows close to his widow, Evelyn. He uncovers a conspiracy that involves the entire city, and spends most of the movie getting to the bottom of it.

You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.

The mystery in Chinatown is great, but other aspects of the writing are equally amazing. Gittes’s tactics in his investigative work are fascinating, and his character equally so. The dialogue is smart and snappy and really feels like something out of a 1940s film noir. There’s even symbolism and foreshadowing buried in there for those inclined to look. I’m making this sound like an English major study piece, but the film is highly entertaining as well. The writing succeeds on every level, and the production is great as well. It’s hard for me to think of movies that get as many things right as this one.

John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown
This movie worked hard to honor other films noir, even bringing on legendary director John Huston, who directed The Maltese Falcon, as a supporting actor.

Following in the footsteps of other films noir, this film is dark and its main character dubious. Jake Gittes was at one point an upstanding police officer, but we catch glimpses of why he’s no longer doing that and why he’s so disillusioned right now. We also catch glimpses of failed relationships everywhere in this movie, and, while not worn thin, there’s enough detail to really make them feel real. The ending truly shocked me. I don’t want to give anything away, but at one point, I thought I had everything figured out and I was dead wrong.

In many ways, Chinatown comes at the end of an era: an era where movie-making was about telling great stories rather than following tested Hollywood formulae. This movie would not be made today. As such, it may be a bit shocking to modern audiences who expect the neat Hollywood ending and the clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys. But the film is brilliant and very competent in its execution. I would recommend this to anyone who would be interested in a dark, gritty detective piece unfettered by modern Hollywood trappings, as well as anyone who appreciates brilliant screenwriting.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:10
Director: Roman Polanski
Year: 1974
Genres: film noir, mystery
Rating: R

Movies Like Chinatown

  • The Maltese Falcon – One of the biggest films noir of all time, this classic detective story was undoubtedly one of the inspirations for Chinatown. Its twisting plot, moral ambiguity, and dark tone helped define the genre, and it’s a great dark mystery that holds up well today.
  • L.A. Confidential – Another modern film noir, this one has a very similar aesthetic to Chinatown and the plot’s in the same vein, although with a slightly more modern tone to it. It’s intentionally in a retro noir style and pays tribute to some of the other classics of the genre.
  • The Third Man – Another of the more famous films noir, this one is a curious mix of dark and whimsical that stands out as one of the more innovative in the genre. Though this isn’t quite as dark as Chinatown or some of the others in the genre, this still has a similar aesthetic and plot.

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