Director Roman Polanski has got quite a few classics under his belt - Repulsion, The Pianist, Rosemary's Baby - but he is possibly best known for this twisted noir thriller. J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is a successful private investigator who has been hired by a woman to look into her husband's possible infidelities. But the husband also happens to be the man standing in the way of a multi-million dollar deal that would be to the financial benefit of many shady people, and when he turns up dead, pretty much everyone is a suspect. To say much more about the plot would give the game away, but despite the movie's infamy, if you have managed to avoid any spoilers then you're in for one hell of a psychological game of cat and mouse.
Nicholson's acting career is similar to Al Pacino's in that it has been remembered mostly for his caricatured "over-acting" performances, but much like Pacino, Nicholson is often at his very best when he's given a quieter, subtler character to work with. That is the case with Gittes, as Nicholson plays him with subdued, intelligent, sarcastic relish, and he is helpfully surrounded by the charismatic but indecipherable Faye Dunaway as his newly-widowed client, as well as John Huston as her powerful, insidiously intimidating father.
But despite the greatness happening in front of the camera, all of the really impressive stuff was happening behind it. Working from a terrifically dark script by Robert Towne, Polanski manages to keep the potentially labyrinthine plot under control and everything remains easy to understand even as more and more new important characters fill the screen. The late 30's LA aesthetic is perfectly captured and the Jerry Goldsmith score perfectly suited, and the movie's influence can still be felt decades on in movies like LA Confidential and video games like LA Noire. This remains a must-watch for anyone who's never seen it, or for those who have and would love to see it again on the big screen.
Chinatown is playing as part of the Polanski season, in the IFI from January 4th to 17th.