Chinatown is an odd-sorta film-noir.
For one, it trades-in the genre’s staple deep shadows and claustrophobic atmosphere for the blaring sun-light and sprawling landscapes of a 1930’s Los Angeles. Secondly, the femme-fatal to Jack Nicholson’s detective (the arrogant, resourceful Jake Gittes) is, we discover early on, everything but; Faye Dunaway maintains the confidence and seduction expected of her archetype, but she also seems to be simultaneously frightened and unsure of herself. Both performances are masterful, as is that of John Huston’s character, Noah Cross, who is one of the most contemptible roles ever conceived of. Thirdly… well, the ending. But we’ll get to that later.
Not every trope of film-noir has been inverted or reimagined, though. There are old-school Venetian-curtains, plenty of them, and cigarette smoke borders many a tightly framed close-up. Aesthetically, Chinatown nails a lot of the key elements of the film-noir movement. Aside from a few instances of showy camera-work and the obvious technological advances of film since the 40’s and early 50’s, Chinatown could easily be mistaken for the genuine article. No attempt is made to visually reference the genre in a direct way, as a satire or neo-noir would. Thematically, however, Chinatown is far darker and more shadowy than even Fitz Lang’s genre-defining M.
Robert Towne’s screenplay manages the hefty amount of exposition needed effortlessly. Seemingly unimportant details reoccur over and over, until later they transform themselves into major plot-beats in the most natural and wonderful way. There are no red-harings in Chinatown; every detail is crucial.
Jake Gittes seems to agree. Like any fictional detective, Gittes makes note of every detail. He appears to be one step ahead of everyone; except the “bad guys”, it turns out. Even with his near-Sherlockian talents, Jack Gittes is not able to expose the corruption he has uncovered by the end of the film; he doesn’t even get the girl. His attempts to be a hero are foiled utterly. The seemingly shocking ending is made inevitable with a single line: “After all, this is Chinatown.”