The Robert Towne-written, Roman Polanski-directed Chinatown is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made – which begs the question: what’s so great about it? Well, as it turns out, just about everything involving Chinatown is great. The Chinatown screenplay is viewed as the Hollywood gold standard; Jack Nicholson’s performance is considered among the all-time best; and Roman Polanski’s direction is irrefutably masterclass. We’re going to break down our Chinatown movie analysis – its legacy, historical context, and influence.

Watch: The Complex History of "Chinatown"

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Chinatown Movie Analysis Essay

Following the long road to Chinatown

To understand the importance of Chinatown, we have to understand the importance of the era in which it was produced. The early 1970s were pivotal years for Hollywood cinema because they marked the advent of
New Hollywood; which in simple terms, was a radical film movement that ushered in a new generation of writers, actors, and directors.

This next video from “Ministry of Cinema” explains how New Hollywood came to be and how film movements such as film noir influenced its style.

Chinatown Director, Writer, and Lead Actor Were Emblematic of New Hollywood

Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, and Roman Polanski were three of the forefront faces of New Hollywood.

Polanski received critical acclaim for directing movies like Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby. By 1969, he had become one of the most sought-after filmmakers in the world. However, tragedy struck when Sharon Tate (the wife of Roman Polanski) was murdered. Polanski’s works in the years immediately after Tate’s death were all absurdist or nihilist. Keep a mental note of this point — we’ll see why it’s relevant later.

Towne developed a reputation in Hollywood as one of the industry’s most venerated script doctors. In his early years, Towne consulted on acclaimed screenplays such as Bonnie And Clyde and The Godfather script. In 1974, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson.

A year later he reunited with Nicholson for Chinatown.

Nicholson struggled to find steady work in his early years in Hollywood but broke through in a major way in 1969 with Easy Rider. The following year, Nicholson starred in the film that thrusted him to stardom: Five Easy Pieces. Over the next three-decades-and-change, Nicholson received 12 nominations for acting Oscars.

CHINATOWN Movie Analysis

What is Chinatown?

Chinatown is a 1974 neo-noir film that was written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starred Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. The film follows the story of a private investigator who becomes embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy. Over the years, Chinatown has become regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Where Does Chinatown Rank with Critics?

  • 21st on THR’s Hollywood’s 100 Favorite Films
  • 78th on Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll
  • 55th on Stacker’s 2020 Weighted IMDb and Metacritic List

Chinatown Summary 

What is Chinatown about?

Chinatown follows the story of fictional detective Jake Gittes as he slowly uncovers corruption in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy. Gittes is an imperfect protagonist — a pseudo-hardboiled antihero that wants to see the good in the world but can’t escape its evil. All of this is to say that Gittes is relatable but somewhat unknowable; just like Chinatown. 

In the Collector’s Edition of Chinatown, Towne said he was inspired to write the script after hearing an exchange involving a Hungarian vice cop saying “What did you do in Chinatown? / “As little as possible” as a way to underscore the unknowable nature of whether outsiders help or hurt ethnic communities.

With Towne’s point in mind, watch the clip below and think about why it’s such an important scene for establishing a major theme.

Chinatown Movie Analysis  •  Chinatown Joke Clip

So: what does Chinatown mean? The “screw like a chinaman” joke is essential to understanding Chinatown. Why? Because it underscores Gittes’s imperfections. It’s a perfect example of turning something into a stereotype simply for the sake of turning something into a stereotype.

More importantly, it’s a moment of misguided justification for Gittes – a moment for him to express his confusion and resentment towards Chinatown for destroying his ideals of justice. Gittes tells Evelyn that when he was a police officer in Chinatown, he tried to do as little as possible because everything was so corrupt and foreign that he couldn’t tell if he was doing any good.

Chinatown Film Noir Elements, Subverted

Turning imperfection into perfection

One of the greatest things about Chinatown is how it takes imperfection and integrates it organically into its story. We’ve already touched on why Gittes is an imperfect protagonist, but there’s a lot more to his character's imperfections than just bad jokes. Take this next scene for instance: notice anything different about Gittes’ face.

Key Chinatown Plot Moments

It may seem inconsequential, but let me ask you this: how many times have you watched a show or movie with a protagonist who has bandages covering their face for extended periods of time?

For me, the only ones that ring a bell are an episode of The Twilight Zone and Phoenix. It’s incredibly daring to use bandages to obscure a protagonist’s face. A protagonist's face is a big part of what sells a movie. You can’t sell a movie if you can’t see their face.

But Towne and Polanski didn’t care about selling tickets, they cared about making a great film.

We see imperfections elsewhere in Chinatown too, like when Gittes misinterprets the term “albacore” for “apple core” and “bad for grass” as “bad for glass.” These moments of imperfection are realistic, organic, and nuanced. 

One of the more famous imperfections in Chinatown is Faye Dunaway’s flawed eye, which we regard as a visual motif. Evelyn Mulwray is incapable of seeing the world as it is. Her flawed eye serves as a distortion device for coping with a world that’s too painful to see truthfully.

But in the end, her flawed eye is destroyed in a gunfight, which leads to her tragic death.

Chinatown Characters Faye Dunaways Flawed Eye in The Chinatown Ending

Faye Dunaway’s Flawed Eye in The Chinatown Ending

Character flaws are an essential part of writing strong characters. If a character is omnipotent, they won’t have anything to overcome; and there’s little strength involved in getting everything easily.

Chinatown Movie Summary and Impact

Quantifying the legacy of Chinatown

Author Sam Wasson argues in his book The Big Goodbye that Chinatown was the last film of “old Hollywood.” After Chinatown, studios began to allocate more budget towards marketing and merchandising than the things we see on screen. That’s not to say that movies after Chinatown were bad by any means, but rather different, from conceptualization to release.

The 1970s is regarded as one of the best decades in cinema history. It produced hundreds of amazing classics, including but not limited to The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, The French Connection, and Network –  and big blockbusters like Star Wars, Alien, and Jaws

But there’s an argument to be made that Chinatown was the best of them all. And there are few who would refute that the Chinatown screenplay is one of the greatest screenplays of the decade. This next video from Jack’s Movie Reviews breaks down what makes the Chinatown screenplay so great.

Chinatown Plot Explained  •  Exploring the Greatest Screenplay of All Time

Remember how I mentioned earlier that Polanski’s works in the years following his wife’s death featured themes relating to absurdism and nihilism? Well, Chinatown is no exception. Some reports suggest that Polanski changed the Chinatown ending against Towne’s wishes. The end result was masterful.

In an interview with critic Michael Sragow, Towne said “Roman and I never really had any arguments except one, and that was over the ending. And it wasn't that I wanted a happy ending; I had felt that his was excessively melodramatic.” In the end, Towne admitted that Polanski’s revised ending was the right choice. 


Best Jack Nicholson Movies, Ranked

We mentioned Jack Nicholson’s performance in our Chinatown movie analysis but this was just the beginning of his amazing work. Chinatown is regarded as one of the best of his illustrious career – but did it take the top honor in our list of the best Jack Nicholson movies? Read on to find out.

Up Next: Best Nicholson Movies →
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