Polanski’s direction is also spot-on, bringing a distinctly European style to 1930s Los Angeles. The result is a lush, beautifully shot picture that gives Towne’s script a vivid sense of life. The story itself is a classic neo-film noir, making the most out of its setting and time period, but still containing the requisite detective story, femme fatale, and other genre trappings (often with a subtle twist). More importantly, it makes a story about water and city planning feel extremely compelling.
Jack Nicholson is at his finest here, stretching past his standard “Jack” mannerisms for a more reserved performance. Jake Gittes is a complex character—a scummy P.I. with something of a moral center, a man filled with hints of warmth and regret—and Nicholson plays every layer with memorable finesse. And as he’s literally in every scene of the film, he carries the movie on his shoulders. The actor is thankfully aided by the alluring Faye Dunaway, a despicable John Huston and even a vicious cameo featuring Polanski himself.
CHINATOWN’s pacing is methodical (i.e. slow if you have a Michael Bay attention span) but the story unfolds with ease and precision, occasionally challenging but always rewarding.
Commentary by Robert Towne and David Fincher: This is a fantastic listen, one of the few commentary tracks I absolutely suggest checking out. The CHINATOWN writer brings his personal experience and knowledge of the story, characters and production, while Fincher presents his brilliant knowledge of cinema and outside perspective as a filmmaker to praise and dissect the film. Both are experts on the material and impart that wisdom to you.
Water and Power (1:17:50): This three-part documentary takes a look at the real life history behind L.A.’s water system and sees writer Towne visiting the city aqueduct , as well as other experts speaking on the subject. You can learn about the system’s geography, politics and influence on the film, as well as Mulwray’s real life counterpart William Mulholland.
CHINATOWN: An Appreciation (26:16): Filmmakers and other experts like Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard talk about the personal and historical impact the film has had.
CHINATOWN: The Beginning and the End (19:27): Many involved with the movie including Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans talk about the film’s origins, background and non-realized trilogy. Some great info is contained here. I could watch an entire hour of it.
CHINATOWN: Filming (25:45): More interviews cover the production and other trivia from the shooting.
CHINATOWN: The Legacy (9:35): Same crew discus the score, the movie’s success, awards and long-lasting legacy.
A Theatrical Trailer.
Extra Tidbit: This was Roman Polanski’s last film made in the U.S.