google playGoogle
app storeiOS
profile icon

Home»Features»Thriller Thursdays: Examining Roman Polanski's twisted noir classic, Chinatown»

Thriller Thursdays: Examining Roman Polanski's twisted noir classic, Chinatown

A private detective, whilst investigating an affair, gets entangled in the sordid politics and liaisons of a corrupt Los Angeles.

Thriller Thursdays: Examining Roman Polanski's twisted noir classic, Chinatown
  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 01.08 PM, Jan 20, 2022


Intro: In our new weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we’ll recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

I entered this 1974 neo-noir with a sense of suppressed excitement. Chinatown is held as an all-time classic.

It is Roman Polanski's film post the gruesome tragedy of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate. It is Jack Nicholson doing a Bogart as Jake the Jaded Detective. It is John Huston as THE consummate sleaze. It is Faye Dunaway as the platinum blonde, whose iciness has a fragility shimmering through.


The film, though, begins underwhelmingly. For 2022, it looks dated — in pace, in edit, in direction. But in no time, one is sucked into its compulsive atmospherics. The sunlit blandness of Los Angeles, the shadows in which the police operate, the hard-boiled audacity of Jake.

Jake (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a beautiful socialite, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), to investigate her husband's extramarital affair. Of course, Jake discovers something and has photographs to prove it. But, it turns out that it was an unknown woman who had hired him to do the investigation - and the actual wife is one angry woman. And, as if that wasn't enough, the husband winds up dead.


Jake is hard-nosed but thin-skinned, and isn't one to take the affront of deceit lightly. As he digs deeper into the case, he finds himself swimming in the city's water politics - and what washes ashore is the realpolitik of relationships, where people grow nastier by the second. Jake realises how corruption is not just all-pervasive but is the blood that flows in the city's arteries.

Roman Polanski is an auteur who wields the directorial baton like a surgical scalpel — he draws blood from what he touches. As Jake and Evelyn come closer to each other, and start closing into the mystery of the deaths erupting in the wake of the case, the shocking truth of family secrets gets bared. In the midst of Jake's desire to be the solution instead of just an investigator, he engenders a climax that is one with the humid, sweaty, deeply compromised climate of a corrupt city.


Los Angeles is almost like a small town in the film, rife as it is with people who can control the fates of thousands for their depraved greed. Chinatown is used as the symbol of an all-pervasive presence of organised crime and corruption in the whole city at large, which just can't be changed. Jake realized it when he was a cop with Chinatown as his beat. And it is merely reinforced with what he encounters now in the larger city, with tragic consequences.

Jack Nicholson is perfect in the film, carrying half of it with his nose bandaged, but capturing both the swagger and the essential goodness behind a tough exterior. In the battle of contrasts, Faye Dunaway starts off as ultracool, only to reveal herself to be vulnerable and damaged as a hurt child.


Polanski is a brilliant filmmaker but carries within him scars of the past. His mother was killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis and his trauma was compounded two decades later when his wife, the beautiful actress Sharon Tate, almost eight months pregnant, was slaughtered in their Hollywood home by followers of the cultist Charles Manson. Chinatown was Polanski's first film after the incident, and is suffused with a strange amalgam of sorrow and cynicism, almost as if Polanski had cut his vein, and the bloodstream flowed seamlessly into a cinematic reel.

Chinatown is a tour de force of cinema - a testimony to a director's talent which was at the acme of its cynical humanity.

Trivia –

Roman Polanski has a cameo in the film, where he gets to cut Jack Nicholson's nose with a knife. The knife itself was crafted especially for the movie to ensure it did not render an injury inadvertently.

You can watch Chinatown on Google Play and YouTube. 

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)