Chinatown at the BFI Southbank
The film noir genre was short lived: the general consensus among film historians defines the movement as existing between 1940 and 1958. This has caused the genre to be immortalised within the period’s cinematic and literary iconography, such as its chiaroscuro-laden black-and-white visuals clouded by cigarette smoke, paired with its femme fatales and hardened detectives.
Since 1958, very few films have been able to reproduce the shadowy allure of film noir. Terms such as “neo-noir” are ill-equipped and too broad in their definition to seek out the true “new” or modern noir. Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown is one of the very few modern films deserving the film noir title.
Jack Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the cynical P I best exemplified by golden-age actors such as Humphrey Bogart. Gittes stumbles upon a high-reaching conspiracy whilst investigating an adultery case, only to find out his love interest and femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is at the centre. The setting for the conspiracy at the heart of the film is Los Angeles’ water supply, and whilst this may seem like an unusual and possibly bland topic for a Hollywood crime film, Chinatown delves deeper, exploring municipal corruption and incest in 1937. Much like the concept of film noir, Chinatown explores dark themes, exposing disheartening cracks in the American Dream.
Brilliantly captured by John A Alonzo’s cinematography, the city of Los Angeles is brought to life and personified. The film’s title alludes to the Los Angeles neighbourhood which is mentioned countless times throughout the film, and steadily becomes an effective metaphor for uncontrollable crime. Instead of the classical night setting associated with film noir, Chinatown primarily takes place during the harsh daylight of the west coast, where crime and corruption is disturbingly able to exist without opposition. But staying true to film noir’s tradition of convoluted narrative structure, Chinatown will twist and turn on a whim, requiring a studious and dedicated viewer.
Offering a host of exceptional performances by Nicholson, Dunaway and John Huston, combined with alluring visuals and arguably one of the best film scores ever composed (courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith), Chinatown is a pillar of modern Hollywood cinema and by far the most successful and accomplished homage to film noir ever made. This film is a highly rewarding cinematic experience that has stood the test of time.
Chinatown is re-released on 4th January 2013 at the BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide.
Watch the trailer for Chinatown here: