Chinatown (1974)

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is on the case in "Chinatown," which is really about anything but.

Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Robert Towne. Produced by Robert Evans. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by John A. Alonzo. Edited by Sam O’Steen. Production designed by Richard Sylbert. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John  Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jensen.

“Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

– Noah Cross

It’s hard to imagine these days, but Chinatown is a film that is about an older Los Angeles, one where corruption and perversity had the grace to remain, if not invisible, at least hidden. And it also evokes the feel of a metropolis that desperately needs water—an L.A. that is struggling to exist where a city should not logically be, and the steps it takes in making a Faustian bargain to preserve its own legacy. Deeper within, there are dark mysteries that, when solved, only expose more sinister layers below. And it also features colorful characters, a period tour of L.A. locations, style, zest, and a tiny touch of wry humor. All of these are elements that would typify a classic film noir, but Chinatown has another thread that, working in concert with the others, makes the entire story resonate on a special frequency: it is about a good man who seeks redemption, and that is his tragic flaw, because to be good in the world of Chinatown is to be powerless. Many noirs are about good people turned bad, and many others depict cynics who are proven right. But Chinatown stands outside itself and looks cynically upon everything—including the odds on the nice guy who wants to save the woman he loves. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” one character tells our hero at one point, “but believe me, you don’t.” He’s so very right.

The hero who gets this advice is Jake Gittes, a private investigator played by Jack Nicholson in one of those special instances where an actor and character seem completely made for each other. Gittes is different from your average private eye: hard, but not cold. Cynical, sometimes mean, but also gentle and able to get hurt. He specializes in tailing adulterers, and has mercenary motives, but he respects his clients enough to advise them they may be able to live without his services. His investigative methods sometimes seem reckless and unrefined: when following the city’s water commissioner, he finds a perch at the lip of a dry riverbed, his full upright figure must cut a huge silhouette in the relentless sun. He has his moments of ingenuity (like his clever way of recording when a suspicious car left a scene), but most of the time he seems out of his element.

As is proper for a noir hero, Gittes comes with baggage: he vaguely alludes to his previous beat as a cop in Chinatown, where he tried to help a woman, but instead “she got hurt,” which is probably his evasive way of saying she was killed. He didn’t follow the advice of the district attorney, which was to do “as little as possible.” (The D.A. gives men advice like that? “They do in Chinatown.”) He treats this as an old wound that needs healing, which may be a mistake. He doesn’t like looking foolish, and feels at odds with the nasty business he makes a living out of, protesting perhaps a bit too much that he makes “an honest living.” He is chivalrous and perceptive (when he tells a dirty joke, he kindly asks his female assistant to leave the room), not afraid to get violent, and overall makes a compelling protagonist because he is well-spoken, well-mannered, and secures a glimmer of hope for himself. Pay attention to how the love scene in the movie occurs just when he notices a beautiful flaw in the heroine’s eye. That’s pretty romantic for a gritty PI, don’t you think?

The heroine in question is Evelyn Mulwray, a wealthy Los Angeles socialite. One day in Jake’s office, he is greeted by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray. She asks Gittes to spy on her husband, the water commissioner of Los Angeles, who she believes is having an affair, and he dutifully agrees, exposing a nasty tryst that instantly splashes onto the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Jake feels a bit uncomfortable about all the publicity, but it’s a by-product of the job, and that’s that. At least he’s not foreclosing on broke families like those bums at the bank. And plus, the woman who claimed to be Mrs. Mulwray payed real well.

So imagine his surprise when an entirely different woman, lawyers in tow, arrives at his office and claims to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). His integrity threatened, Jake continues to dig. After very little persuasion, Mrs. Mulwray does drop her lawsuit, and at this point, Jake could conceivably walk away, but he doesn’t enjoy being set up, he deplores unanswered questions, and while he knows he lives in a town comfortable with corruption, he doesn’t like it being waved in front of his face. When Mr. Mulwray is found dead, it occurs not as an impetus for him to begin anew, but as a confirmation of his worries that something rotten is happening. And so he keeps looking, and in doing so cuts a swath through the social strata of Los Angeles, meeting a lot of tortured individuals, some of them penniless, others dying of thirst, and still others who dress well and seem friendly, but are perfectly diseased. It takes all kinds.

All of that is plot. Chinatown isn’t really about plot. Most mystery plots are boring, anyway, because they emphasize structure over substance, creating puzzles that, when deciphered, leave nothing of note behind. While it is true that the screenplay carefully doles out pieces of information, they are integrated into observational details of how Jake Gittes conducts himself: an important clue, for example, comes right at the moment where Jake is pestering a secretary, manipulating her so that she’ll be fed up with him. Or, after tumbling into bed with Evelyn, she quietly excuses herself, and he follows to watch her through a window, disturbed not by what he is seeing, but by proof that suggests he should not trust this woman, even though he is falling for her. Robert Towne’s screenplay is consistent in always focusing on Jake Gittes, even as he is focused on uncovering a large conspiracy.

The film follows Gittes as he does his investigating. He works his way around apathetic clerks who hold the keys to massive pieces of information. He pokes around the city reservoir, but all he finds are dead bodies, detectives who are annoyed at the intrusion, and street toughs who rough him up by cutting up his nose (he seems to resent the resulting bandage, not just because the wound hurts, but because it makes him appear ridiculous). His visits to the water department are met with skilled deflection, and the more they seem like they aren’t hiding anything, the more it is almost certain that they are. And at every moment, again, the film is not about Jake doing his job—but how he does his job. Even though there’s a lot of it, the plot is secondary. Character, character, character. Oh, and by the way, isn’t it interesting to experience a story where a character has to work for information, rather than piecing it together online?

The third key character in Chinatown is Noah Cross (John Huston), a corpulent millionaire who owns the city’s water supply. Cross is grandfatherly, pleasant, a villain who values good manners even while committing unspeakable acts, many of them transgressions against his own blood. There’s a disturbing edge in the way he speaks, a languid drawl that overtaxes his jowls—like he’s chewing on words before saying them. Huston (who himself was a director of countless classics, including the prototypical noir The Maltese Falcon [1941]), has only three major scenes in the film, but his presence hangs over every moment. Cross is, of course, behind the water corruption plot: as owner, he is conning the citizens of LA into accepting a proposed plan to conserve the city’s water supply, when actually it will be used to irrigate the entire San Fernando valley, which has just been bought dirt-cheap. Very suspicious, that.

But there is yet another layer to Noah Cross. He’s a skilled manipulator, remorseless, a nasty human being, and his seeming affability is probably what allowed him to commit his most horrible crimes of all. I won’t reveal what they are, but it strikes the audience like a thunderbolt and causes one to reevaluate everything they have been told up to that point, including the question of who Mr. Mulwray’s mistress even was (remember them, from way back in the beginning?). Cross regrets the falling out he had with his daughter, and when asked if he blames her, his response, in context, is chilling in its comfortable depravity: “I don’t blame myself.” Is he for real? Frighteningly…yes, and in one little moment he perfectly encapsulates the heart of film noir: behind every man is a compromised, terrible innocence.

The film is exceptionally detailed in capturing 1930s Los Angeles: not just the edging suspicions of corruption, but the wide spaces that can appear both promising and unfriendly, the blue skies that become oppressive, the rich homes built to keep huge secrets contained, the way the city is fabricated entirely out of contrasts of light and shadow. And the heat, oh, the heat. Rarely has a film set inside urban safety made sunlight look so disgusting. As for the skyline itself, John A. Alonzo’s photography makes the city look beautiful, and then can make it look ugly a moment later. This strategy is key to depicting the Chinatown’s shifting sense of hope, as well as the visual masterstroke of pervasive earth tones: the film’s look is constantly dry, dusty, parched; suits are all browns, blacks, grays. Shots set during golden hour make even the brush and growth appear sickly. Even the city council meeting where they debate the water issue is punctuated when a farmer, in protest, storms the council chamber with the brays of goats that need drinking water. What’s the difference between a thirsty animal and a thirsty man, anyway?

I said before that the plot is secondary to character. You could even make the argument that Chinatown is actually all character, if you consider the city of Los Angeles a character itself. Chinatown takes as its inspiration the real-life battle over land and water in the valley in the early part of the twentieth century, here transposed into the 1930s so as to better accentuate the feel of a complete society facing decay. LA is frequently the setting for noir, perhaps since it is the perfect place for a genre where men try to outrun their pasts. Chinatown effectively makes film noir loop itself, by firmly utilizing its own environment as an ultimate conclusion , and certainly there is an ironic point being made in a burgeoning city securing its future by swindling innocents out of their own. Robert Towne’s screenplay (which won an Oscar) is insidious, the way it layers and informs several elements at a time with small, deliberate strokes. One great touch: an innocent moment where Dunaway slumps onto the steering wheel, eliciting a quick honk, and how this moment is recalled in a much more serious capacity later.

None of this would work, however, if the love story were not convincing, and part of that is Nicholson (who has perhaps never been more tender and sincere than here) and Dunaway, who projects an aura both real and worldly, sexy and professional without ever trying to be either. The way the romance is handled is refreshingly delicate for a film noir, and also brilliantly restrained: they’re never forced, we simply watch them materialize, which makes the ultimate implications of the story all the more tragic: we believe that, in the end, these are two people who fit well together, but they are torn apart. Not by fate, because that would at least be comforting in some small manner. It’s more like happiness is not man’s natural state, not here, and cannot sustain.

Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski, and it signifies the end of his short Hollywood career—not long after it, he was accused of statutory rape and fled the country (to make a long story very short). Whatever you think of Polanski as a man, his voice as an artist is undeniable. If Chinatown is unremittingly bleak (and it is), perhaps Polanski’s view can be understood in that it was made not long after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in their Los Angeles home by members of the Manson family. Polanski, who was also a Holocaust survivor, channeled his personal horror into his work, as I wager anyone would do. The last line of the film is “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” which is a worldview that values coldness, and expresses the futility of fighting a system that you cannot effect, which is any system. In essence, life is pointless. End of movie.

True? Not true? I don’t know. But it is a powerful statement, not least of which because we can suspect that its author, when this was made, absolutely felt that way. Noah Cross is correct that, under the right circumstances, a man is capable of anything. Including despair.


NOTE: Polanski plays the tiny tough guy who gives Gittes a free nose job. It’s pretty squicky.

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One thought on “Chinatown (1974)

  1. drush76 June 29, 2011 / 4:46 pm

    [“It’s hard to imagine these days, but Chinatown is a film that is about an older Los Angeles, one where corruption and perversity had the grace to remain, if not invisible, at least hidden.”]

    No it wasn’t. Trust me.

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