I Found It At the Movies: 1974–Chinatown (Roman Polanski)


Inspired by Dave Hicks’ excellent blog, I have decided to write about my favorite film for each year from 1926-2008.

1974: Chinatown (Roman Polanski)

I’m not a writer. I probably will never be. But if I were to become one, I would want my movies to sound like Robert Towne’s. In the near-decade between Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo, when he wrote Chinatown, Towne operated in a zone of moviespeak nirvana. Working somewhere between literature and spoken word, his dialogue was sharper than the way we speak, yet close enough to our rhythms and words that they were utterly recognizable.   

Don’t get me wrong, I think Roman Polanski is an extraordinary moviemaker. But if I’m being honest about why I like Chinatown so much, I have to give just as much credit to Towne. Not only does he manage to create one of the best film noir stories, but he is also somehow able to work in a history of Los Angeles at the same time.  

The look of this film actually doesn’t blow me away. The magic for me, aside from Towne’s work, is in the casting (the choice of John Huston rivals the genius of casting Brando in The Godfather), the locations, Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score, Jack Nicholson’s dead-on lead performance and the ending, which is probably my favorite in the history of film.

As someone who loves noir films and will probably make more of them in his career, Chinatown is a bit of a thorn. I just feel like no matter what anyone does, it’s impossible to top it.

What moviemakers can learn: Even if you are just a director and not a writer, study the language of Robert Towne’s better works: Chinatown, Shampoo and The Last Detail. He is, in my opinion, one of the two or three greatest screenwriters in the history of American cinema.  

Other contenders for 1974: I still have quite a few titles to see. These include: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre, Jacques Tati’s Parade, Jean Eustache’s Mes Petites Amoureuses, Werner Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Maurice Pialat’s La gueule ouverte, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveler, Alain Resnais’ Stavisky… and Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch. I need to revisit both Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, as it’s been too long since I’ve seen either of them to know where they’d place on this list. From this year I really like Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I love Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II, Robert Altman’s California Split and Thieves Like Us and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. My closest runner-up, though, is Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities.

After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors. Goodman is now at work raising money for his next feature, Peril.

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