Whenever I hit a professional mile marker, good or bad, I put on Chinatown. Chinatown is a movie that is so good it keeps my ego in check, and so good that it also inspires me to believe in why screenwriting matters.

Regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, Chinatown is a neo-noir mystery film directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne.

Set in 1937 Los Angeles, the film stars Jack Nicholson as J.J. "Jake" Gittes, a private investigator who becomes entangled in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder after being hired to investigate the suspicious activities of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I'm delighted for the opportunity to talk about what makes this movie so special.

Let's dive in.

What Makes 'Chinatown' So Great?

I remember the first time I saw Chinatown. I watched it on my 13in laptop in 2006, after ordering it on Netflix DVD. I huddled on the floor of my bedroom and dove deep into the world of 1930s Los Angeles.

I was amazed by the intricate and suspenseful plot, filled with twists and turns that kept me guessing until the very end. The film's atmospheric cinematography, period-accurate set design, and Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score contributed to its dark and brooding tone.

But this movie is great on another level than most movies. It feels important. It feels like it's about core American perversions and cynicism. It is both entertaining and troubling.

Let's dig into some other ways this movie is so special.

  • Intricate and Suspenseful Plot: The film's labyrinthine plot, filled with twists and turns, keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. The mystery unfolds gradually, revealing layers of corruption and deceit that keep the audience guessing until the shocking climax.
  • Compelling Characters: Jack Nicholson delivers an iconic performance as the cynical yet determined private investigator, Jake Gittes. Faye Dunaway is equally captivating as the enigmatic and alluring Evelyn Mulwray. Their complex relationship adds emotional depth to the mystery.
  • Atmospheric Cinematography and Setting: The film's visuals beautifully capture the sun-drenched yet morally murky landscape of 1930s Los Angeles. The period-accurate details and evocative cinematography create a sense of nostalgia and unease.
  • Masterful Screenplay: Robert Towne's Oscar-winning Chinatown screenplay is a masterclass in storytelling. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and filled with memorable lines. The plot is meticulously crafted, with each scene contributing to the overall mystery.
  • Powerful Themes:Chinatown explores universal themes of corruption, power, and the abuse of innocence. The film's commentary on social and environmental exploitation resonates with audiences today.
  • Timeless Appeal: Despite being set in the 1930s, the movie remains relevant due to its exploration of timeless themes and its masterful execution. The film's impact on the neo-noir genre and its enduring popularity among critics and audiences solidify its status as a cinematic classic.

Awards for 'Chinatown'

Awards for 'Chinatown'


Credit: Warner Bros.

Chinatown was a critical and commercial success, earning 11 Academy Award nominations and winning for Best Original Screenplay. It is considered a classic of the neo-noir genre and a landmark film in American cinema, praised for its masterful storytelling, compelling characters, and powerful social commentary.

The film's ambiguous and cynical ending, with its famous line "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," has become iconic and continues to spark debate and analysis.

In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked Chinatown second on its list of the top ten mystery films. Additionally, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991. It is frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.

The Themes of 'Chinatown'

I think what makes this movie stick to people for so long are the themes. As I said up top, there's something so American about deceit and greed. It feels like a timeless agenda that we are constantly battling.

And when that fight becomes over water, the essence of life, it carries even more weight.

Chinatown delves into several prominent themes:

  1. Corruption and Power: The film exposes the insidious nature of corruption and the abuse of power, particularly within the government and wealthy elite. Noah Cross's manipulation of the water supply for personal gain exemplifies the destructive consequences of unchecked power and greed.
  2. Moral Ambiguity: The characters in Chinatown operate in a morally gray area, where the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Jake Gittes, despite his good intentions, becomes complicit in the tragedy that unfolds, highlighting the limitations of individual action in a corrupt system.
  3. The Illusion of Control: The film challenges the notion that individuals can control their destiny. Jake's relentless pursuit of the truth ultimately leads to devastating consequences, suggesting that some forces are beyond human control, and attempts to change the system may be futile.
  4. The Past's Influence on the Present: The characters' past traumas and experiences shape their actions in the present. Jake's past in Chinatown haunts him and influences his decisions, while Evelyn Mulwray's history with her father continues to torment her.
  5. Social and Environmental Exploitation: The film critiques the exploitation of resources and people for personal gain. The manipulation of the water supply and the displacement of farmers reflect the destructive consequences of unchecked capitalism and the disregard for the environment and vulnerable communities.
  6. The Importance of Truth and Justice: Despite the bleakness and cynicism of the film's ending, "Chinatown" underscores the importance of seeking truth and justice, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Jake's relentless pursuit of the truth, despite the personal cost, serves as a reminder of the importance of upholding moral principles in a corrupt world.

This is one of the few movies I think should be required viewing if you want to work in Hollywood. There are so many intricacies and special moments that can teach you so much, it's a fountain of knowledge.

Not only is it one of my favorite movies of all time, but it's the foundation for what I'm always trying to accomplish; a movie that has a lot to say and whose messages stay timeless.

Let me know your favorite part of Chinatown in the comments.