Jim Philip’s Home Movie: Chinatown
I saw Chinatown when it first came out in 1974 in Orlando in one of those movie houses that don’t exist anymore. And even as I was watching it, I said to myself, “This is a classic movie.” I went back and saw it two or three more times.
I fell in love with it.
One of the things I love about Chinatown is that it holds up today. If you came in from nowhere and had no idea who Jack Nicholson or Faye Dunaway is, or who John Houston was, and I told you this movie was filmed yesterday, you would believe it. It’s got that kind of holding power. And it’s a movie that—in my estimation—can never, ever, ever be done again.
The writing is superb. The cinematography is exquisite. Acting just doesn’t get any better: a standout performance for Nicholson. It’s where he breaks out and becomes a great movie star. Faye Dunaway is so fragile, and John Houston, the legendary director playing rich man Noah Cross, is superb.
It’s a great movie, with great moments:
• When Nicholson is asked what he does for a living,” I am in the matrimonial business. It’s my métier.” What private eye says “métier”?! French, of course, for vocation.
• When asked about respectability, millionaire Houston answers, “Of course, I’m respectable: I’m old.”
• Then, there’s the incredible, and totally unexpected scene when director Roman Polanski, playing a little hood, says to Nicholson, “You’re a nosy fellow kitty-cat.” And suddenly this little hood physically changes how we see Nicholson for the rest of the movie. What hood says KITTY CAT?!?
Chinatown is an exquisite, wonderful film that—for me—has always had a relationship to home, to Orlando. While this movie seems to be about murder, it goes well beyond that. It actually is a movie about the future. I have always seen a connection between 1930s Los Angeles and my Orlando of the 1960s.
Los Angeles then was a small town in the middle of a desert. Orlando was a small town in the middle of a swamp. It’s a movie about people—rich powerful people who have everything in the world and who can buy anything. The only thing they haven’t got yet is the future. They buy land, move the citrus growers out of the valley, acquire water, so they can buy the future of Los Angeles and Southern California. When Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, asks rich man Noah Cross, played by Houston (who makes a point of always mispronouncing Gittes’s name), “You have money. Anything you want, you can buy. What else can you buy?” Houston responds, “Well, the future, Mr. Gitz.”
In our 1960s Orlando, we too were “buying the future.”