Chinatown in one of the few untouchable movies for me. My praises of this film are immeasurable. It just might be my pick for the best movie ever made. If not then it ranks comfortably beside the other untouchables like Blade Runner, The Apartment and Once Upon a Time in the West. Chinatown certainly shows that originality has nothing to do with throwing out all past genre conventions and starting over from scratch and has everything to do with point of view. In many ways Chinatown is a conventional detective movie and appears on the surface to be quite ordinary, at least up to a point, and yet it stands out among the other greats of the genre as perhaps the apex of the genre. In past great films like The Maltese Falcon or Out of the Past and even in the literature of Raymond Chandler and others that preceded the great detective films of the 1940’s, there was always a question about the history of the heroes, the “tarnished knights” as Chinatown wrtier Robert Towne refers to them as. It was usually hinted that something bad happened to make them as disconnected from the breed of people their occupation demanded that they mingle with. They had a glimpse of the darkest aspects of our world, the parts that many don’t ever see, and had to stand apart from it and above it, clinging onto a value system that consequently allowed for very few personal relationships. They were tragic loners because to allow someone to get close is to risk cracking the armor that is necessary to have in their line of work. Chinatown delves a bit deeper into the psychology of the detective so that when there is finally a dialogue, brief dialogue at that, about what Chinatown (the location in Los Angeles) means to Jake Gittes it brings him down from being simply a romantic hero to a tragic romantic. And it’s all set up for the shocking climax of the film. There are very few films that do tragedy well, or at least fairly, without forcing it, without simply being cynical, but because that is the way this story had to end. Chinatown is one of those films.
Chinatown was made in the 1970’s, that decade when when the traditional genres were being rethought, assaulted and in some cases trashed under the belief that they were too far removed from everyday life or that they were tired, worn out, or dead as a more modernist sensibilty started to creep into films. And Chinatown may have been seen as an updated, reassesment of the film noir genre, or neo-noir, but watching it today it is amazing how much respect it does have for the classic conventions. It’s not an ironic commentary on the genre, not spoofing it in any way. It is deadly serious and, as I said, respectful. I believe that that is why Chinatown lasts, why it holds up 35 years later when many of the films of that era bogged down in the issues of the time. Chinatown is timeless and great and shocking and surprisingly very moving. Yeah, I think this is the best film ever made!