"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Writes Roger Ebert:
"…Nicholson can be sharp-edged, menacing, aggressive. He knows how to go over the top (see "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and his Joker in "Batman"). His performance is key in keeping "Chinatown" from becoming just a genre crime picture -- that, and a Robert Towne screenplay that evokes an older Los Angeles, a small city in a large desert. The crimes in "Chinatown" include incest and murder, but the biggest crime is against the city's own future, by men who see that to control the water is to control the wealth. At one point Gittes asks millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston) why he needs to be richer: "How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" Cross replies: "The future, Mr. Gitts, the future." (He never does get Gittes' name right.)
"Gittes' involvement begins with an adultery case. He's visited by a woman who claims to be the wife of a man named Mulwray. She says her husband is cheating on her. Gittes' investigation leads him to Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), to city hearings, to dried river beds and eventually to Mulwray's drowned body and to the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Stumbling across murders, lies and adulteries, he senses some larger reality beneath everything, some conspiracy involving people and motives unknown.
"This crime is eventually revealed as an attempt to buy up the San Fernando Valley cheaply by diverting water so that its orange growers go broke. Then that water and more water, obtained through bribery and corruption, will turn the valley green and create wealth. The valley has long been seen as a key to California fortunes: I remember Joel McCrea telling me that on his first day as a movie actor, Will Rogers offered two words of advice: "Buy land." McCrea bought in the valley and died a rich man, but he was in the second wave of speculation.
"The original valley grab was the Owne River Valley scandal of 1908, mirrored in the 1930s by Towne. In the preface to his Oscar-winning screenplay, he recalls: "My wife, Julie, returned to the hotel one afternoon with two quilts and a public library copy of Carey McWilliams' Southern California Country, an Island on the Land --and with it the crime that formed the basis of Chinatown." McWilliams, for decades the editor of the Nation, presented Towne not only with information about the original land and water grab, but also evoked the old Los Angeles, a city born in a desert where no city logically should be found. The screenplay explains, "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." John A. Alonzo's cinematography, which got one of the movie's 11 Oscar nominations, evokes the L.A. you can glimpse in the backgrounds of old movies, where the sun beats down on streets that are too wide, and buildings seem more defiant than proud. (Notice the shot where the bright sun falls on the fedoras of Gittes and two cops, casting their eyes into shadows like black masks.)…