JPF Looks At One Of The Greats: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

12 Jan

Director Roman Polanski has had a tough and turbulent path through life—some of it his own making some of it just plain back luck.  Part of my decision to review Chinatown was his legal problems resurfacing again in September of 2009 when he was arrested in Switzerland at the request of the U.S. Government for extradition back to the States to face criminal charges involving alleged sex with a minor from the 1970’s.  On July 12, 2010, however, the Swiss rejected the U.S. request and instead declared him a “free man” although all six of the original charges are still pending in the U.S.

In 1969, before he was personally involved with our criminal justice system, Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson and his band of  twisted followers.  Despite the personal hell one would go through under such circumstances, Polanski directed Chinatown which was released in 1974.  Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film based on Robert Towne’s screenplay and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.  The film clearly embodies the film noir genre with its multidimensional tale that is part mystery and part psychological drama.

The film, set in 1937 Los Angeles was inspired by the disputes over water rights that had plagued southern California.  Nicholson plays JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, a private detective who concentrates on matrimonial matters.  He is hired by a phony Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city’s water supply system, of having an affair.  Gittes takes the case and photographs him with a young girl however, he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray.  When Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into an intricate web of deceit involving murder, incest and governmental corruption all stemming from the city’s water supply.

Polanski even makes a cameo appearance in film (the clip of course shown here) as the individual who famously cuts Jack Nicholson’s nose forcing him to wear an obnoxious bandage throughout much of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, Chinatown has one my favorite lines said in a movie “Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown” (again clip provided for your viewing pleasure).  It is also the last line of this great film.  You are a fool if you don’t make time to watch this one.


Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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24 responses to “JPF Looks At One Of The Greats: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

  1. Person

    January 12, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Since when is having one’s mother killed in Auschwitz and being swept up in the Shoah (Holocaust) considered “bad luck”? (I assume that’s what you meant to write.) For that matter, was the Manson murder of his wife also “bad luck”? I know you couldn’t have meant to imply this, I hope.


    • Bonnie

      January 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      I am not really sure what you’re getting at, “Person.” Actually, most of life’s bad events, from the merely annoying ones to the traumatic ones to the absolutely stark ravingly horrific ones, could be classified as “bad luck.” Maybe you feel that “bad luck” is an understatement. But being born in a particular place and time, of a particular ethnicity and religion, and then getting caught up in a horrific and genocidal series of historical events that were in no way your fault — well, if that’s not bad luck, what is? What could possibly be worse luck? –Well, maybe having your wife who is pregnant with your child murdered by a psychopath is worse. I couldn’t say. But they both would have to be close to the top of a list of the “worst luck scenarios” the world could possibly have to offer!

      In so saying, I am not suggesting that these events were caused by “luck” or that the persons responsible should not be held responsible. What I am saying is, that falling into the path of people on a killing spree sure is bad luck. It’s terrible luck, horrific luck, the worst kind of luck imaginable.

      Likewise, those of us who are not facing such horrific experiences should thank our lucky stars every day that we aren’t. We are experiencing much better luck. As Buddhist teachers say, for example, being born human and in a time and place where you have the chance to hear the Buddha’s teachings is very good luck. Buddhist teachers make the point that we should use our time in this human lifetime wisely, because next time we may not be so lucky.

      My point is, whether we experience good fortune in our lives, or bad fortune, much of what happens to us truly is luck. You can call it luck, or you can call it fortune, or you can call it what you will, but the fact of our birth in a particular time and place — well, it is luck. That we happened to move to a community where we thrive or a community that turns out not to be a safe place for our family — much of that truly is luck. That’s not to deny the historical forces and historical agents that are involved or to absolve the forces of evil or agents of evil in any way. But our presence in a time and place that puts us in the path of evil or in the path of goodness…there is luck involved. I’m sorry if you don’t find the word serious enough for the subjects under discussion, but my dictionary says that luck is a “force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person’s life.” What a coincidence, “Person,” that you showed up in my dictionary definition of luck! :-) Anyway, I see no lack of seriousness in the word. Luck can be a perfectly serious and somber word — just depends on the context and tone.

      I am certain that JP was in no way trivializing the Holocaust with his reference to bad luck (goodness knows, he’s experienced plenty of bad luck of his own in life). But this, when you come right down to it, is a philosophical (maybe even a religious and spiritual) discussion about the nature of good and evil and who, ultimately, is responsible, and perhaps about whether there is such a thing as luck. It’s not about political correctness. And I think what you are doing in your comment, quite simply, is chiding JP for not using the most politically correct language that he could have used. If you look more deeply, though, and stop thinking in terms of that, you’ll see that he was writing sympathetically and was just trying to understand (and explain for those who didn’t know) what Polanski has been through.


      • Person

        January 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm


        I disagree with your assessment – moving back to Poland from France on the eve of a world war was a terrible choice. The political/genocidal forces in play were not a matter of luck, but of choices made and voted on. You might want to check out the film “The Wansee Conference” to see just how little luck and how much planning went into Polanski’s family along with many millions of others’, being murdered.

        As for the other comment about the dictionary definition of “luck,” right back at ya. But there too, choices were made.

        The background on Buddha is interesting, but since I follow another religion, I’ll stick to its particular teachings. One thing is does teach is that words have meaning and consequences and that releasing words is tantamount to releasing the feathers from a pillow – once they’re out there, it’s impossible to get them back.
        I’m not interested in what’s PC, only in what’s appropriate, and to be honest, I was, indeed, offended by the use of “bad luck” to describe the Shoah.


      • Bonnie

        January 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm

        Person, your reply to my reply doesn’t have its own reply button next to it, so I hope I don’t confuse the whole thread of comments by replying here instead.

        Anyway, thank you for your reply, and of course you’re entitled to your opinion.

        Re my “dictionary definition” comment, you misunderstood me, though I see how that happened now that I have reread the sentence. Oops. I was being a bit more literal — just joking that you refer to yourself as “Person” and the word “person” was in the dictionary definition — my way, in a sense, of trying to indicate that I hope you don’t take my comments Person-ally. Only I think that maybe that was exactly how you did take them. Oh well.

        Yes, of course words have meaning and consequences, and thank you for pointing that out as well. That’s a wise insight that everyone would do well to keep in mind, and is, I might say, my point exactly.


  2. jpfmovies

    January 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    What I was trying to say that he has had a really tough life yet despite these unimaginable tragedies, he and his art persevered when many, many, many others would have faced insanity or massive depression–and rightfully so given the amount of trauma and pain that he must have endured. Remember though this was not a biography of Roman Polanski, but a review of what I consider his best work–Chinatown (with Rosemary’s Baby a close second).


  3. Person

    January 13, 2011 at 1:55 am

    I understand that your piece was not meant to cover Polanski’s personal biography, but since you did begin with the reference to “bad luck,” I couldn’t let that go unanswered. Or perhaps you were going for understatement. In the spirit of “Chinatown,” and as Mulholland said, “There it is . . . take it.”


    • jpfmovies

      January 13, 2011 at 3:02 am

      I was going to start with something along the lines of “Polanski has had a rough path through life” but toned it down for no particular reason.


      • Person

        January 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm

        Perhaps it would be worth examining his most recent movie as well, “The Ghost Writer,” for a more current look at Polanski’s work.


        • jpfmovies

          January 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm

          You know I saw that movie and for some reason I “just didn’t get it” so to speak.


  4. Person

    January 14, 2011 at 3:06 am

    I guess the NYT did. The paper stated that the adaption deserved an Oscar. Also, the National Society of Film Critics hailed the performance of Olivia Williams. Take a look:


    • jpfmovies

      January 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      I am sure they did, but I just didn’t see it. Dr. H loved the movie I just can’t figure out what I am missing.


  5. Person

    January 15, 2011 at 12:58 am

    As I’ve not yet seen it, I can’t speak to what you’re missing, but clearly others are “getting” what you’re not. Are there other Polanski films you are considering reviewing?


    • jpfmovies

      January 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      I am considering taking a look at “The Ninth Gate” (1999) starring Johnny Depp. It is a relatively unknown movie involving a rare book dealer—and I love rare books. Don’t know why I have not looked at it yet.


      • jpfmovies

        January 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

        Also Roman Polanski’s daughter makes a cameo in “The Ninth Gate.” Which makes it a little more fun.


  6. Dr H

    January 15, 2011 at 11:20 am

    JP, you were tired the day we watched the ghost writer, I suggest you watch it again. What I liked about the movie was an undercurrent of impending doom so immaculately done that it keeps you on the edge of the seat through out. The subtle touches in the movie are the hallmark of a great director. I insist that you watch it again.


    • jpfmovies

      January 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      To change the subject completely, my favorite two favorite clips from the above selection are of course the “it’s chinatown” but I also really like Polanski’s cameo as the chap with the knife. What are your favorite scenes throughout the whole movie?


  7. Dr H

    January 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Person,you should consider reviewing Rosemary’s Baby, a movie way ahead of its time and the precursor to films like the Exorcist and the Omen. Jp can tell you how he posts the reviews.


    • Person

      January 16, 2011 at 1:56 am

      Dr. H:
      I’ve not seen “Rosemary’s Baby,” but will take a look and see if I can find it on Netflix streaming. I recently watched Polanski’s “Frantic,” set in Paris, with Harrison Ford. It’s a pretty compelling story and keeps the viewer guessing. Don’t know anything about “The Ninth Gate,” but I do know that Polanski has more than one daughter – which one is in it?


  8. Dr H

    January 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Frantic was good but Rosemarys baby is better and has stood the test of time. Watch it and you will agree.


    • Person

      January 16, 2011 at 7:00 pm

      OK: I’ll see if I can locate it; looks like it is best not to watch it before trying to sleep. I’ll let you know the results and will blame you for any negative consequences. :)


      • Jude Finestra

        January 19, 2011 at 10:25 pm

        Dude! (Or pardon me, you might be a Dudette.) I’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby. That flick gave me nightmares for weeks! And I don’t normally get nightmares. They knew how to do horror movies in those days–


    • Person

      January 22, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  9. Person

    January 20, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Based on what’s you’ve written, I might skip the film; I don’t need any more nightmares. Thanks for the “heads up!”



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