By Paula Delaney
Chinatown – 1974 – dir. Roman Polanski
A young Jack Nicholson stars in this complicated weave of drama, suspense and intrigue. Nicholson plays the role of J.J. ”Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who has retired from the police department with some very bitter memories of corruption during his days working for the district attorney in Chinatown. Nicholson is as savvy and self-assured as he is in all of his movies, and he can be captivating as he risks his life to solve this intricate “whodunnit” about the murder of a Water Department official in a close knit town in southern California.
The unraveling of the plot in this film resembles peeling layers of an onion. Mrs. Mulray, the wife of the victim, Hollis Mulray, is played exceptionally well by Faye Dunaway. Dunaway’s aloofness contributes to the intrigue of the film and she perfectly fits the character who is obviously concealing important information throughout the story. Hollis Mulray is played by Darrell Zwerling who is cast as the unlikely suspect of being involved in an extra-marital affair, a ruse that is created to discredit him and thus his ability to stop a large scale fraudulent land acquisition. The land deal is being contrived by a group of politicians and “civic leaders” led by the wealthy Noah Moss (played by John Houston), who is initially introduced as estranged father to Mrs. Mulray and former business partner of her husband Hollis. Nicholson presents as a very clever detective from the beginning when he places a timepiece under Hollis Mulray’s car to calculate how long he stays at a reservoir during a scene early in the movie. When Nicholson learns that he has been set up he becomes tenacious in his effort to solve the murder of Hollis Mulray. He enlists the help of Mulray’s wife, and throughout the film the viewer is forced to question her role in this murder case, since she expertly plays the role of a woman with a secret. This can be considered a challenging film for viewers who like to solve mysteries quickly. The circumstances around the murder are such that throughout the film one entertains any number of suspects.
The solution to the murder uncovers a number of surprising, if not twisted, circumstances, not the least of which is the discovery of an incestuous relationship. This film won an Oscar for best screenplay and received 22 other nominations. It has been assailed as one of Polanski’s finest productions, and while offering some unique opportunities for character study, it also serves to make a comment on the political corruption that is often characteristic of emerging rural America.