Faye Dunaway

Is Chinatown the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The premise of this series is tongue-in-cheek. There is no “best” movie, not really, and even assuming there was, there’s not enough time in one lifetime to find it. I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books this year and the personal details there serve as a reminder that you cannot expect to cover this kind of ground. We’re a good chunk of the way through 2021 and I’ve only seen 45 movies this year that I hadn’t seen before.

All that said, part of the reason I started this was to give me an excuse to watch new things. There’s rarely a good time to sit down and watch a three-hour Russian drama, even if you’re the sort of person who wants to do that. I’m the kind of person that struggles with rewatching things, as well, as it feels like a waste of time that could be spent in experiencing new things. That’s obviously not the right way to think about it, but when I queued up Chinatown for at least the third time recently, part of me wondered if I needed to see it again.

You don’t need me to tell you to watch Chinatown. It’s one of the most acclaimed films in American history and even if you’re not really into classic film, you know the final line. This is not obscure or in need of being rethought. I decided early on I wasn’t going to start with my favorite movies (like The Third Man and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) or the obvious ones (like Citizen Kane and Casablanca). I include Chinatown here despite violating that second rule because I think it is an interesting movie to consider in this context.

The “Legal History” section of director Roman Polanski’s Wikipedia page is extensive and you cannot discuss Chinatown without confronting the man behind the camera. There’s a much larger discussion to have around art and artist and I think it’s a difficult one to have. As of this writing, comedian Louis C.K. recently performed in front of an enormous sarcastic “sorry” sign. It’s really something I’ve thought a lot about, because his show Louie is one of my favorite TV shows of the last twenty years. It was astounding television and I’ve written a lot, years ago, on this site about how much I love it. I don’t know what to do with the reality that he seems to be a true monster and seems to be leaning into it, which is even worse, I think, but I still loved that show. The list of evil men who make good art is long, but the whole premise here is that there’s an infinite amount of things to consume. Why bother with anything made by someone that requires you to split the art and the artist? It’s one thing for someone to be “complicated” but Polanski isn’t complicated.

It’s been clear over the last few years that people will bend over backwards to defend what they consider touchstones of culture. I’m going to try to talk about Chinatown because it’s on all the great lists and, yes, is a great movie, but you have every right to ignore it and condemn it given who Polanski seems to be. I think that’s probably even a more defensible position than this one, but let’s talk about the movie.

Chinatown came out the same year as The Godfather Part II, so it lost most of the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did win for Best Original Screenplay. When you watch it through a modern lens, the script is what you notice. It unfolds so perfectly, with the first half unclear on what the mystery even is and the second half feinting towards one thing only to explode with detail in the final fifteen minutes. Jack Nicholson was at the height of his power in 1974 and his performance as Jake Gittes is unforgettable. Roger Ebert wrote about Chinatown several times, but the detail from his criticism that stands out to me is calling out that Gittes is confused alongside the audience. He’s not a mastermind detective the way so many heroes in stories like these are, but he’s resourceful and inventive. We never know what he’ll do next and we never assume he’ll figure it all out and save the day. It ends up feeling like an unpredictable story as a result, but not a confusing one. We get all the details he gets, as he gets them.

Gittes is a private investigator who is hired to investigate a local businessman is cheating on his wife, but then it becomes unclear who really hired him. Then, shockingly, the guy ends up dead, which changes the entire story. Gittes seems like a decent guy, though he’s comfortable in the muck. He knows the cops but also has some other allies. The storytelling is superb, as advertised, but you only really notice it in retrospect. It doesn’t flow from A to B. It weaves along, sometimes making you wonder what this scene means or why this person’s motivations seem unclear. It all pays off with Noah Cross, the powerful man behind the entire conspiracy, maybe, played by John Huston. His daughter, played by Faye Dunaway, seems in control of some scenes and like she’s piecing it all together alongside Gittes in others. It’s clear from the beginning that she has something to hide, but what? And what does Noah Cross, who seems to be infinitely rich and powerful, want? Gittes even asks him at one point, what more can you buy that you don’t already have?

You probably know a little bit about Chinatown or maybe a lot about it, but on the off chance you don’t know the twist, I won’t spoil it for you. The three central performances are obviously notable, but I keep coming back to Huston. He’s one of the greatest directors of all time, but his acting is almost equally fascinating. He plays Noah Cross with an effortlessness that is on display again in Orson Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. In both films, Huston embodies the idea that no one in any room he’s in can challenge him at all. This is true power, not just political control or money, but the confidence that you will get what you came for in every situation. The final line of Chinatown is iconic for a reason, but Huston’s performance as he delivers the ethos of his character and of the world as he sees it is always what will stick with me. He addresses the private investigator and either deliberately (as disrespect) or absent-mindedly (as a sign that he is not worth remembering) calls him “Gits” instead of “Gittes,” and says “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” You may think you know the evil you’re up against, but the deeper you go, the worse it all gets.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last movie in this series was Millennium Actress. Realistically I have to go with Chinatown as the better film, but it’s interesting how stark the contrast is in morals. Neither film shows a necessarily good or just world and both are consumed by evil that’s motivated by greed, but Millennium Actress shows a different way to exist within that in opposition.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s still Persona. I haven’t revisited Persona since watching it and I think I might do so soon. Chinatown is even better after you’ve seen it a few times as you notice what everyone knows and when they know it. The first time through it’s a story that gets bigger and bigger, but on repeat viewings you notice that the big story actually shrinks to give way to the personal conflict. It’s a neat trick and part of what makes this a movie that’s stood the test of time.

You can watch Chinatown on Amazon Prime or Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.