Chinatown, which is streaming on SBS, was the film that made the world sit up and take notice of Jack Nicholson

In the early 1970s while the old Hollywood studio system was collapsing, Jack Nicholson was on the rise.

After a scene-stealing performance in Easy Rider (1969) with his outrageous portrayal of a drunk lawyer, he'd gone on to leading roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and then Carnal Knowledge (1971) directed by Mike Nichols.

But it was with Chinatown that Nicholson made the world sit up and notice: he's in every scene of this film and he fills the frame with that heady mixture of knowing charm and explosive energy.

The film was written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski and released in 1974, and little about the movie has dated, particularly Nicholson's charismatic performance.

Such is the attention to detail - from the production design to the antics of minor characters - that it's well worth watching again, and again. It's currently streaming on SBS on Demand.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Picture: Getty Images

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. Picture: Getty Images

Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, an ex-cop and now small-time private eye in 1937 Los Angeles, specialising in the grubby business of investigating extra-marital affairs.

When he's hired to follow the city's Chief Water Engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), he's led into a bizarre world of corruption and family politics, with plenty of warnings to stay away - including the now famous scene when a Water Department henchman (played by Polanski himself) slashes Gittes' nose.

But Jake isn't the kind of investigator to slow down when things get murky or bloody. Driven by a combination of intense curiosity and working-class pride, Jake navigates his way through the covert activities of the Water Department which seem to be secretly dumping water at night in the middle of a drought.

His journey takes him to the table of wealthy businessman Noah Cross (John Huston) and the bedroom of jittery femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

As the story progresses, lies and bodies pile up, with Jake adopting some underhand tactics of his own as he follows the trail of suspicion. His activities attract the attention of the LA police, led by Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), an old colleague. They used to work together in Chinatown.

The pleasure here is not in trying to work out whodunnit, but in watching Nicholson wrestle and squirm inside the character of Gittes, who in turn will wrestle and squirm his way to the heart of the mystery.

Like all good film noir, there's a tangled messiness to proceedings. Not only are things not what they seem, but character motives and manoeuvres are illusive to understanding.

The pleasure here is not in trying to work out whodunnit, but in watching Nicholson wrestle and squirm inside the character of Gittes, who in turn will wrestle and squirm his way to the heart of the mystery.

John Huston (who directed The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen) is spectacular as Noah Cross, a man so influential he believes utterly that he can do anything.

Faye Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulwray as brittle and disingenuous, and her scenes with Nicholson are electric. But all characters, big or small, are fully formed and flawed: from an annoying clerk in the Library of Records to a cynical police sidekick who laughs at Gittes' misfortunes.

Robert Towne's writing draws on the hard-boiled tradition without risking deterioration into parody. One of my favourite movie lines of all time comes when Gittes, with a huge bandage on his nose, spits out his displeasure to the elegantly dressed Evelyn Mulray. "I like my nose, I like breathing through it."

Polanski directs everything with intense care, keeping you intrigued with the elegant production design just in case Nicholson isn't enough to watch. You can almost taste the dryness of 1937 Los Angeles, thanks in part to the constant water references everywhere, from dripping taps to fish emblems.

Under the watchful eye of producer Robert Evans (who Nicholson would rescue from financial ruin in the 1980s) Polanski and Towne fought over the script, and in particular the film's ending, which is - as Polanski wanted - set in Chinatown.

There are a few references to the location throughout the movie, but only as a place where nothing can be known and little done. You get the sense that Gittes left the police force, and Chinatown with it, for that very reason - because he wanted to do something and be someone.

What he learns is that, when it comes to the rich and powerful, there'll always be a Chinatown in your way.

  • Chinatown is now streaming on SBS On Demand.
This story Classic Nicholson at explosive best first appeared on The Canberra Times.