"IN THIS BUSINESS," says Jack Nicholson--as J.J. "Jake" Gittis, private detective specializing in marriage difficulties, flushing his suave taunting smile and slender silver cigarette case--"you gotta have finesse." Nicolson does. And so, in this business of making thirties atmosphere detective thrillers, does Roman Polanski. He's made Chinatown the best film so far this year, an unpretentious homage to thirties detective flicks, the kind of tense story where the reviewer forgets to take notes about half-way through.
Nicholson is superb as a detective hired by a wife who's a phony, does his job well enough to break a front-page story, and finds himself in the middle of a great conspiracy involving the water supply of thirsty Los Angeles--rendered here with delicate eye and choice of color filters. Enter Faye Dunaway, older than you remember her, as the real wife of the man, soon murdered, her thick dark lipstick granting her what Joyce somewhere calls red mollusc lips.
Mr. Gittis gets curious. He goes looking for water, the blue water that goes rushing illegally out of the city reservoir every night. He finds it, gets soaked when it comes charging down a dry canal. Walks out. Shot of his feet. Curses his leaky Florsheims. And then up walks director Polanski as a short little tough with a foreign accent, who puts a knife in the detective's nostril and makes a little slice to remind him not to be nosey.
That kind of tense action is always in the foreground. But the background is continually in use as well. Polanski often has the shot divided in half down the middle, and while a character talks in one half the other is left for out-of-focus entrances, clues, touches of atmosphere. Faye Dunaway comes in that way, behind Nicholson telling a dirty joke. And in the background, literally and figuratively, is where the thirties settings stay, unpretentious, accessory: a blurry old Coke sign reminded me how much more obtrusive the nostalgia bit is in some other recent films, say Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us with its repeated Coke signs and radio soundtrack that just won't quit.
Here the Thirties feeling is all the more pervasive for being less superfluous. It runs from the opening titles, done in black and white and period lettering, through the flat, distant photos Giddis takes on the job--these open the film, coming into the picture before it widens out into color and Gittis's office--and to such of the camera's fascinations as frosted glass in office doors.
Chinatown itself is also in the background--and curiously far. Only one scene takes place there, but it figures importantly in Gittis's background. He was a detective there and got involved with a woman and learned its lack of respect for life, but the outlines are blurry--out of focus. Maybe too far out of focus for some people--I'm guessing the worst thing that could be wrong with this film is that about two thirds of the way through you might worry about why the title seems irrelevant. But by that point in the story I doubt you'll have time.
The same quiet sense of perspective keeps the pace under superb control and frames the shots with a touch that is most deft for being so unarbitrary: Polanski cuts skillfully into shots through windows, mirrors, bamboo curtains, cameras, binoculors, but the only cut that seems personal, intrusive, cruel, is the one he applies in character to Nicholson, but he does that with finesse too.
Nicholson is a natural as the tough detective, aggravating lackeys with quick come-backs, putting the key questions, and he's just hateful enough to stay really elusive and unknown, in the best tradition committing himself only for the next clue, walking out on Dunaway in the middle of the night. Dunaway herself has never seemed fuller or more powerful. A sense of maturity controls her tension, carries off her partial duplicities. John Huston is also surprisingly good--and better directed, I'd guess--in the dirty old rich man's role.
For Polanski, Chinatown marks a certain proof of mastery to which none of his previous films gave him clear title. It falls in a genre he's never touched before, and yet it comes from his hands shaped true both to its genre and--in the unnatural, shocking twist of the ending--to its director. If there's any justice in this business Chinatown should be the big success of the year.