Initial release: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Let’s just get right to it: Roman Polanski is a child rapist who also happens to be a filmmaker of considerable skill and has directed a number of culturally important films, including a neo-noir classic that has inspired imitators for decades. Filmed a few years before Polanski would be charged with the rape of Samantha Gailey, Chinatown is a fictionalization of a series of legal and political fights between the fast-growing city of Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside over water rights. Set in the late 1930s, the film follows Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a private detective who mostly makes his bones exposing husbands or wives being unfaithful to their spouses. He gets tricked into investigating Hollis Mulray, the head of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, the results of which are widely publicized. Realizing he was set up, he tries to talk to Mulray, but finds him being fished out of a reservoir. While the official report is that he drowned, Jake is suspicious that something sinister is afoot. Thousands of gallons of water are being dumped into the ocean every night, and Jake wants to know why. His investigations turn up some very interesting facts, but they also earn him the attention of armed goons working for the water department, one of whom (played by Polanski) slashes Jake’s nose.
The more Jake digs, the uglier the secrets, up to and including a horrible, wealthy old man who has a plan for Los Angeles’ future and a dangerous secret he’ll stop at nothing to suppress. The original film noirs reused plot devices and tropes to the point of being fairly predictable. Polanski felt Chinatown should do something different and argued with screenwriter Robert Towne, eventually writing an ending that’s horrifying in light of his subsequent crimes. Through the course of the film, Jake discovers that the film’s resident femme fatale was actually raped by her father, and the girl that she calls her sister is actually the result of this assault. Horrified, Jake is powerless to do anything, as in the end, the main villain not only gets away with his crimes but also has a new victim to groom, which feels like some kind of fucked up, prescient fantasy on Polanski’s part, especially since Polanski has, for over 40 years, gotten away with it. In the context of Polanski’s personal life, Chinatown can be an uncomfortable film to watch. And yet it’s still one of the greatest film noirs to ever see the light of day. This film seems to embody most people’s mental image of classic film noir without delving too deep into pastiche. All the classic tropes are here: chiaroscuro, a hard-nosed gumshoe, a femme fatale, and dark secrets. It’s hard to really overstate how gorgeous this film is. Polanski has used the glaring brightness of sunny Los Angeles to cast a long shadow of shady business deals and shadier personal problems, showing how things get muddled and sometimes the bad guys win.
That’s really the worst thing about the whole mess. It would be easier if Polanski were a mediocre filmmaker; but he’s not. He’s got an amazing eye for framing a shot in ways that heighten tension, paranoia, tragedy. He is, quite frankly, a genius — and a convicted child rapist. Unfortunately it’s that same genius that has given him some immunity in Hollywood and the film industry abroad. A long line of Hollywood stars are eager to work with a convicted child rapist because he happens to be a famous one, even as late as 2019’s An Officer and a Spy. It’s actually kind of appalling, especially in light of the #MeToo era, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and so on. For years it was considered outright rude to ask Hollywood stars about Polanski’s statutory rape conviction — he stood as the poster boy for a broken American justice system. But now half of Hollywood’s powerful men have been canceled and yet nobody seems to mention Polanski, who actually has a rape conviction under his belt.
What the fuck is the deal here? Is this just because he got busted in ’77 instead of it all coming out in ’17?
But even that’s horseshit. There’s been more accusations against him, starting in 2010 by Charlotte Lewis as well as several more in 2017 and 2019. By all rights he should have been canceled alongside Weinstein, Spacey and all the rest. Into the jail with ya, stop squirmin’, get in there.
And I think that’s kind of the ultimate lesson from Chinatown — that, in the end, some people, even actual child rapists like Polanski, are going to get away scot-free and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Forget it,” someone’ll tell you. “It’s Hollywood.”