The movie could be considered the greatest in the career of Jack Nicholson, and that is saying a lot. We are talking about the award-winning 1974 noir mystery Chinatown, and it can now be seen on Netflix.
Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, one of the greatest characters ever created for film. Gittes is a private investigator and the mood, set in 1937, is immediately palpable. Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, arrives in Gittes’ office to hire him to follow her husband on the pretense of an affair.
Gittes follows Mulwray, photographing him with a young woman. After the pictures see the light of day in the newspaper, Gittes returns to his office to find Evelyn Mulwray in his office, but not the one who hired him. This new Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) informs Gittes because of those pictures, he should be expecting a lawsuit.
Knowing he was set up, Jack Nicholson’s Gittes intends to reach out to Hollis to find out what’s going on. Before he can, Hollis is found drowned in a reservoir. Gittes, now suspicious of murder, continues the investigation. What he notices, though, is surprising. Although there is a drought going on, water from the reservoir is being released into the ocean every night.
Gittes’ investigation finds him being warned off by the Water Department’s security chief and his henchman. When Gittes gets back to his office with a sliced nostril for his troubles, he receives a call from Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) who identifies herself as the fake Evelyn Mulwray. She is afraid to give Gittes all the information as to who employed her, but she tells him he needs to keep an eye on the obituaries.
The mystery deepens as screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanksi lay out the facts. Jack Nicholson’s Gittes is able to figure out that the water department (and those in charge) are purposely drying up land so they can nab it at a reduced price.
Evelyn warns Gittes that her father, Noah Cross (John Huston) is a very dangerous man, which he is beginning to believe. When Evelyn is called away, Gittes follows her to a house where he spies Evelyn comforting the young woman who was with Mulwray at the beginning. When Gittes confronts her, Evelyn tells him that the young woman is her sister.
The mystery deepens for Jack Nicholson’s Gittes when he is drawn to Ida Sessions’ apartment, only to find her dead. Things are beginning to look as though Evelyn has masterminded the whole thing and when Gittes again finds her, her servants are packing for Evelyn to make a getaway. What comes next is the twist that is immediately stomach-churning and one that won’t be given away to those who have not yet seen this masterpiece.
Robert Towne’s script, which won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, is often considered, as well as the movie, as one of the greatest of all time. But the script wasn’t without its controversy. Initially, the script ran 180 pages long and Towne definitely had different ideas as to how the movie would end. Not wanting to give away the ending, we’ll just say that the two (Towne and Polanski) parted ways based on the fact that Polanski saw the ending differently. In fact, Polanksi himself rewrote the ending a few days before he shot the final scene.
Chinatown was originally set to be a trilogy, following Jack Nicholson’s Gittes through his time as a private investigator. It took 16 years, but Towne and Nicholson did team up for the second part, The Two Jakes, but its lackluster performance at the box office shut down the idea of a trilogy.
Jack Nicholson had already been around Hollywood for a number of years before he was offered Chinatown, a part that Towne wrote especially with him in mind. With an early career that consisted of appearances on many TV series, it wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that Nicholson began to see more time in feature films. One of his earliest successes came with the 1969 film Easy Rider. He then went on to Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and The Last Detail before Chinatown came knocking.
The list of Jack Nicholson’s feature film accomplishments makes him one of the most popular and well-known actors of his generation. He has starred in such hits as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”), Hoffa, As Good as it Gets, Mars Attacks!, and The Departed.
We haven’t seen Jack Nicholson on the big screen since his last film in the 2010 romantic comedy How Do You Know. It has been said that Nicholson stepped away from films due to memory loss. “There is a simple reason behind his decision – it’s memory loss. Quite frankly, at 76, Jack has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him,” a source told Radar Online back in 2013.
The actor, now 84, is still seen from time to time courtside at Los Angeles Lakers basketball games, where he’s been a season ticket holder since 1970. If you are truly looking for a work of art in filmmaking, take a peek at Chinatown on Netflix.