'Chinatown' turns 40

Last week, the Roman Polanski film noir classic “Chinatown” celebrated its 40th year in existence. If you haven’t set eyes on this mercilessly stylish and well-plotted masterpiece, make it a priority to do so. The film features Jack Nicholson as a disillusioned private eye in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. (If necessary, please read and/or watch “The Maltese Falcon” post haste.) As he investigates what he thinks is a routine job, he finds himself involved in a power play for water rights in 1930s Los Angeles and falling for a troubled femme fatale played by Faye Dunaway. The trail also leads to uncovering the dark deeds of John Huston as the stunningly effective villain of the piece. Speaking of Sam Spade, Huston made his directorial debut with “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, so he knew his way around a film noir.

The script was crafted by famed screenwriter Robert Towne, although the ending was not what Towne intended. He lost the fight with director Roman Polanski on the resolution of the movie’s events, which I won’t give away here. But Towne won an Oscar for the screenplay nonetheless. The sets and costumes (Richard and Anthea Sylbert) as well as the cinematography (John A. Alonzo) were all spot-on.

I had the pleasure of writing an intro and outro for the film that will be delivered by Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies Aug. 15 as part of the network’s Summer Under the Stars Film Festival. That day will be dedicated to the work of Faye Dunaway, who managed to turn out a series of iconic performances in a short space of time, including “Chinatown,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Network.”

Nicholson actually had to fight for Dunaway to get the part in “Chinatown.” Producer Robert Evans originally intended to cast his then-wife Ali Macgraw. After Macgraw ditched him for Steve McQueen, Evans offered the part to Jane Fonda, but she turned it down. Thus Dunaway landed one of her best parts and delivered one of her best performances. She and Polanski butted heads early and often during the production, but everybody came out a winner in the end. The movie was a runaway hit and was nominated for 11 Oscars (winning only the one for best screenplay, unfortunately – it was the year of “The Godfather, Part II"). Dunaway, incidentally, lost the best actress award to Ellen Burstyn for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (another great movie and great performance).

So celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Chinatown” with a rental or a purchase ASAP. It does not disappoint.