The Jack Nicholson Crime Thriller Classic On Netflix Is One Of The Greatest Of All Time

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Updated

The term iconic is often overused, but it’s entirely appropriate when it comes to the 1974 neo-noir masterpiece, Chinatown. This stellar film, directed by Roman Polanski and penned by Robert Towne (many consider its screenplay the finest ever conceived), represents a formidable example of narrative prowess and stylistic perfection.

One Of Jack Nicholson’s Best Roles

Any film buff will tell you it stars Jack Nicholson in one of his best roles (only rivaled by his similarly beloved, though totally divergent, Jack Torrence in The Shining) and the always-excellent Faye Dunaway. The movie captivates audiences with its more intricate plot and exceptional performances today as much as it did in the mid-’70s. Above all, the work is masterly mediation on the corruption of power and the elusiveness of truth. 

Chinatown Take Place In A 1930s LA

Chinatown chronicles the tale of private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes; as is usually the case in noir, Gittes’ outwardly simple, straightforward “snoop and snap photos” case descends into a vast conspiracy–one involving water rights, familial secrets, institutional corruption, and even incest. 

The film begins in 1937 in Los Angeles, a city harboring a cesspool of greed and deception behind its glittering facade of grandeur and elegance. A woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to surveil her husband, Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

A man of integrity, Hollis is nonetheless embroiled in the contentious politics of water supply; the engineer vehemently opposes the construction of a new dam due to safety concerns. 

This stance, commencing with the inciting incident in Chinatown, pits him against powerful interests indeed. 

A Conspiracy Story Diving Into Real Events

Gittes’ investigation complicates greatly when he photographs Hollis with a mysterious young woman, engendering a major public scandal. Escalating things further, the real Evelyn Mulwray (played by Dunaway) shows up; her arrival reveals Gittes has, low and behold, been manipulated, functioning as a ploy in a larger scheme. 

Soon, Hollis’s body is discovered in what appears to be a “routine drowning,” compelling Gittes to investigate further with the help and patronage of the real Mrs. Mulwray. The further Gittes delves into the heart of the conspiracy propelling Chinatown–the more he unearths a nefarious plot to harm the city environment for financial gain, a plot device harkening to the real-life California water wars (highlighting the film’s grounding in historical disputes over water rights). 

Meanwhile, the personal grows inextricably linked with the political, as Gittes’s investigation leads him to Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross, an unforgettable villain played brilliantly by John Huston. Cross personifies unchecked power and greed; his motivations and actions reveal a deep-seated moral rot.

Chinatown Was An Instant Hit

When it debuted, the film was met with unbridled acclaim. The movie earned 11 nominations at the 47th Academy Awards, including a win for Best Original Screenplay. That year’s Golden Globe Awards would further recognize Chinatown’s brilliance, assigning it awards for Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. 

As recently as 2008, the American Film Institute notably placed it second on its list of the top ten mystery films; this accolade cemented its status in the annals of film history. Also, in 1991, the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress elected to preserve the film. This gesture glaringly underlines its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance, ensuring its legacy will endure.

The Performances Were Spot On

Chinatown enjoys continual reverence, partially due to how it explores the ethical dilemmas—and existential quandaries—plaguing its characters. Navigating these heady waters, Nicholson’s acting constitutes a master class: his Gittes is understated, witty, and effortlessly cool, yet burning with a moral fire and earned heroism that, while it cannot save the film’s most vulnerable innocents, inspires and impresses. His career-defining performance encapsulates one man’s descent into a moral abyss. 

Additionally, Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is equally compelling. Her role presents a complex, utterly and painfully conflicted character whose tragic fate emphasizes the film’s critique of power and patriarchy.

See For Yourself On Netflix

And forget La La Land–when it comes to embodying the very essence of Los Angeles, of clinching the title for the quintessential L.A. film, Chinatown has no rivals. The parched air, the gorgeous sun, and the veneer of glitz concealing an interior of sleaze and horror, are all pronounced most effectively in Polanksi’s neo-noir masterpiece. 

The film’s influence would extend, in the short term, to a sequel, The Two Jakes, which saw Nicholson return not only as the lead but also as a director. Although ultimately failing to replicate the success of its predecessor, it is still regarded warmly, albeit as an afterthought to the first film.

For a devilishly compelling noir experience, stream Chinatown today.