100 Movies You Need to See Before You Die

Chinatown (1974)

Country: USA
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: Robert Towne
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling

Think what you will about Roman Polanski on a personal level. From an artistic standpoint, there’s no denying his brilliance; he’s a nuanced auteur who has been cited as an inspiration by scores of international directors, from Wes Craven to Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky to David Fincher. And Chinatown is his masterpiece.

This 1974 film, based on the California Water Wars that took place in the earlier part of the century, is a complex neo-noir in which private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) teams up with wronged housewife/femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to figure out who murdered her husband.

The film marked Polanski’s return to Hollywood, five years after the gruesome murder of his pregnant wife—actress Sharon Tate—at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers. And it was at the behest of ’70s super-producer Robert Evans that Polanski took the job at all; Evans felt that Polanski’s European heritage and tortured background might give Chinatown a distinctively darker edge. He was right.

Despite Evans and screenwriter Robert Towne’s opinions to the contrary, it was Polanski who insisted that the film’s ending be a decidedly un-happy one—a rarity in Hollywood (yes, even in the 1970s). —Jennifer Wood

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