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Polanski's 'Chinatown' one of the few pitch-perfect films made (****)

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Posted: Friday, November 9, 2007 10:00 pm

In all the years I've been writing this column, I have never discussed Roman Polanski's film noir classic "Chinatown" at any length. It's a film of such beautiful perfection, of such deep personal meaning to me, that it seems that anything I have to say about it would be rudimentary - meaningless, even - in the context of such an overwhelmingly grand piece of cinema.

Since I first viewed it at the impressionable age of 10, it has stuck with me like few other films have. I've seen it a dozen times since and I hope to see it dozens more, each time discovering another overlooked or forgotten detail embedded in screenwriter Robert Towne's endlessly complicated vision of corruption in pre-war Los Angeles. It's a treasure of a film, just recently re-released on DVD with a clean new transfer and previously unavailable behind-the-scenes footage. If you haven't seen it before, or haven't seen it in a long while, it's a prime opportunity to enjoy one of the only truly flawless films ever made.

Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in routine adultery cases. He's hired by socialite Evelyn Mulwray to snoop on her husband, but what starts out as a typical investigation is complicated when the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up demanding to know why Gittes has been harassing her husband. Things soon take a deadly turn, and Gittes is left to put together the pieces of an increasingly intricate puzzle involving land rights, water siphoning and buried family secrets, all somehow tied to the rich and, by extension, powerful businessman Noah Cross (John Huston).

Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay is rightfully considered the standard by which all other mysteries are now judged. With its complex, layered tale of municipal corruption and pitch-perfect, rat-a-tat dialogue, its influence is impossible to overstate. (Even the last episode of NBC's "Heroes" directly lifted a memorable dialogue exchange in a nod to the elaborate nose bandage that Nicholson's character wears throughout a significant portion of the film.)

From Jerry Goldsmith's majestic score to the striking costumes, sets and cinematography, everything about "Chinatown" hits just the right note, evoking the malaise and moral decay of a city in which things - and people - are always even worse than they look, and the last decent man fights the good fight even though he should know that redemption is nothing more than a naive pipe dream.

"Chinatown" is rated R for violence, language, sexual situations and mature themes.

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