21 – Chinatown (1974)

Morty: Can you believe it? We’re in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.
Seen before?

R: No.

F: The first 10 minutes or so but no not really.


R: This felt in some ways like it didn’t do a lot different to The Maltese Falcon, but I enjoyed it a lot more. I think that’s probably down to Polanski directing and Nicholson in the lead role. It’s really clear what’s going on and who’s who, despite a pretty elaborate script, and Nicholson is quite possibly at his very most watchable here, which for me is really saying something.

F: Yes a film noir but made in the 70s. I think it felt more relevant than The Maltese Falcon since it was about politics and water and people’s lives rather than a gold trophy…

R: Agreed!

F: Nicholson is on top form here, but better than Cuckoo’s Nest? Not for me I don’t think.

R: Nicholson’s character is very different in this, much more restrained than in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which I think makes it a more nuanced performance. But I’m happy to say he’s equally good in both films. I wonder though if this is another film where the sins of the director got in the way of you enjoying it? I know you struggled with Annie Hall

F: Yes perhaps. Feels less personal than Annie Hall though where it really was hard to separate the director/star from his personal life. My main issue with this film is that I think it could have been longer. I didn’t really get the importance of Chinatown at all. I would have like to have seen some scenes from the early days with Jake Gittes in Chinatown to understand why the film is called that and why it ended there!

R: I like this explanation that “Chinatown” is not just a place but a state of mind: a feeling of such deep bewilderment that it would be impossible to ever fathom what’s truly going on, and so the most sensible thing to do is to “keep your head down” and try to cause as little harm as possible. I agree this could be more explicit, but I’d like to reserve judgement on whether the film needs more of Morty’s backstory until I’ve had the chance for a second viewing.

F: It’s too subtle for me. Is Chinatown notorious for being this way? But not a major issue. What do you think makes this the 21st best American film of all time?

R: As well as helping rekindle the Film Noir genre, which I’m sure will have boosted its cachet among some of those who voted on this list, the mystery at the heart of the film is really well layered. It’s not the kind of story that’s a one-and-done, where if you know whodunnit there’s not much left of interest. The depth is clearly there to ensure this rewards repeat viewings.

F: I agree, and I did enjoy this, but it didn’t have that special something for me that warrants it being this high. We’ve already mentioned Jack Nicholson but what do you think of the other performances here? I think Faye Dunaway is ok here but she’s kind of similar to when we’ve seen her before in Bonnie And Clyde and Network. I think she must have had a really good agent getting her roles in all these iconic movies.

R: I think that’s a bit harsh. Her character in this is very different to Network; she has a quiet intensity here and you get a real sense of something bubbling underneath the surface. I don’t think there are any weak performances in the whole film.

F: I agree they are all good here. John Huston is really great and probably my stand out. Overall I think this is a solid film.

Is it worthy of the top 100?

R: More than solid! It’s a yes from me.

F: Yes, but not as high as number 21.

Up next:
20 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
22 – Some Like It Hot (1959)

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