May 9, 2002

Film Guide to Chinatown (1974)

by Mark Graves, SUNY Fredonia

United States. English. Color. 131 minutes. Available: VCR and DVD.

Crew

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Robert Towne, Roman Polanski (uncredited)
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Editing: Sam O'Steen
Original music: Jerry Goldsmith
Production design: Richard Sylbert
Costume design: Anthea Sylbert
Producers: Robert Evans, C.O. Erickson

Cast

Jack Nicholson (Jake Gittes)
Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray)
John Huston (Noah Cross)
Perry Lopez (Lieutenant Lou Escobar)
John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton)
Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray)
Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions/Evelyn Mulwray Imposter)
Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill)
Roman Polanski (cameo as man with knife)
Joe Mantell (Walsh)
Bruce Glover (Duffy)
Belinda Palmer (Katherine Cross)
Burt Young (Curly)

Synopsis

Jake Gittes is an L.A. private eye who specializes in matrimonial strife and infidelity. He is called upon by a woman who falsely identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray, wife of wealthy landowner and city water commissioner Hollis Mulwray. The imposter has Gittes spy on her "husband" to find out if he is having an affair. Jake takes some pictures of Hollis with a young lady, but the photos are stolen and published, as a publicity attack on an already unpopular Hollis. (L.A. is in the middle of a water shortage as the result of a drought, and Hollis has become something of a scapegoat for the angry public.) Gittes soon comes to understand how he has been used, when the real Mrs. Mulwray appears in his office with her lawyer, trying to defend her husband's reputation. However, when Hollis Mulwray is found murdered down by an L.A. river the next day, Mrs. Mulwray hires him to find the killer. Jake gradually uncovers a plot to buy unwatered land for low prices, divert the city's water supply in order to water the land, and then sell the land off for millions of dollars. The plot is masterminded by Noah Cross, Evelyn's father and Hollis' one-time business partner, who has a vast network of corrupt city officials and landowners backing him up. While Gittes continues to unravel the details of this scandal, he falls for the recently-widowed Mrs. Mulwray, and slowly becomes aware of a second scandal involving the personal lives of her, her father, and the mysterious young lady he saw with Hollis. In the end, Jake's struggle to uncover the truth leads him into Chinatown (the site of a past failure during his years as a cop), and eventually results in Mrs. Mulwray's death at the hands of the corrupt L.A. police. Noah Cross wins, and Gittes walks away defeated.

Summary of Critical Reviews

Cocks, Jay. "Lost Angelenos," Time, 1 July 1974: 42.

In talking about Chinatown, Cocks continually refers to a predecessor in the private-eye genre: writer Raymond Chandler, and his own fictional detective Philip Marlowe. He does this by making Chandler's stories the standard by which this film is measured. He cites the movie's main strength as its setting, a 1930s Los Angeles which closely matches reality, or at least the most common images associated with that era, ranging from the standard joke, "six suburbs in search of a city" to Marlowe's description, "a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style." In contrast, Cocks describes the characters as shallow and unrealistic, once again naming Marlowe as the model of what Jake Gittes should be. While Cocks is correct about the way Jack Nicholson's and Faye Dunaway's acting do not meet the stereotypical roles of private eye and femme fatale, he has missed the point: they're not supposed to. Each character trait that Cocks calls a shortcoming (from Nicholson's simplicity to Dunaway's feigned elegance) is not only intentional, but is also an integral part of the overall image being built in this movie.

Gilliatt, Penelope. "Private Nose," The New Yorker, 1 July 1974: 70.

Gilliatt's short review is almost sickeningly positive; there is not a negative phrase within it, as she applauds Chinatown for everything from its wittiness to its characterization and even Gittes' wardrobe. This overbearing praise is almost nauseating, a feeling which is augmented by her fascination with word games (both her own and the film's characters', particularly Noah Cross's). Also somewhat annoying is her obsession with pointing out all of Polanski's hidden jokes and "oblique farce," some of which are not quite believable in terms of their effectiveness or the probability of their actually having been intended by director Roman Polanski; she at one point suggests that Noah Cross's name is derived from the way an actor feigning a Chinese accent might say "no cross me." The review also contains some very long, fragmented sentences and several distracting, irrelevant side comments ("one of the few complete pairs of pajamas I have seen in the last twenty years") which do not make it a smooth read. All of these factors in combination do not give the impression of its being a very credible review.

Zimmerman, Paul D. "Blood and Water," Newsweek, 1 July 1974: 74.

Although Zimmerman's review is also predominantly acclaim of the movie, it is much more convincing because of the depth of his observations. He identifies Polanski's title and setting as not only appropriate choices for the action, but also as a clever and effective metaphor for the "moral climate" that he believes is Polanski's real underlying theme in this work: the "Byzantine corruption" and "decadence of the 1970s." He makes further insightful and congratulatory comments on Nicholson's and Dunaway's abilities to adapt their usual acting styles to meet their assigned characters, and also on Polanski's success at developing meaningful messages and parallels (like the one between a dam scandal in a fictional 1950s L.A. and the then-volatile Watergate scandal in real-life 1970s D.C.) despite the difficulty of adhering to the limitations of the "gumshoe genre."

Berardinelli, James. "Chinatown." ReelViews. 2001. James Berardinelli. Accessed 11 March 2002 .

Berardinelli's opinion of Chinatown is that its success is born of the fact that it is the exception to so many rules and expectations. Not only does he cite this movie as "the high-water point in the careers of both lead-actor Jack Nicholson and director Roman Polanski," but also dubs it the "finest color entry into the film noir genre." His main point is that the film takes all of the cliches and conventions of the stereotypical private-investigator movie and re-works them to give the story life and depth, establishing expectations early on and then breaking them as the plot unfolds. In keeping with this same line of thought, Berardinelli's one key disagreement with all three of the earlier reviews is his statement of how unrealistic Polanski's 1930s L.A. is (calling it the "exaggerated stuff of dreams and movies"). While this statement fits well into his argument (as another example of Polanski playing with the norms), one has to doubt the accuracy and/or credibility of such a statement, seeing as how Berardinelli is the most recent of the four reviewers and therefore the least likely to have actually experienced the '30s firsthand.

Background Information

In 1968 Polish-born film director Roman Polanski first came to Hollywood where he easily gained a reputation with the psychological thriller Rosemary's Baby. However, after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the infamous Charles Manson gang in 1969, Polanski decided to return to Europe. Chinatown marked Polanski's 1974 return to the USA, and seemed to foreshadow a promising Hollywood career in store for him... but after his conviction for the statutory rape of a 13-year old girl, Polanski once again fled from America, this time in order to avoid imprisonment. (IMDb, Roman Polanski)

Polanski has a cameo in the movie: he is the hood who slits Jake's nose. This scene was actually extremely complex to film, and Polanski and Nicholson both got so tired of explaining how it was done that they simply began to claim Nicholson's nose was actually cut. (IMDb, Trivia)

Writer Robert Towne originally intended Chinatown to have a happy ending. However, during pre-production Polanski and Towne argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic ending. Polanski won the argument and, when the picture was re-released in 1999, Towne admitted that he had been wrong. (IMDb, Trivia)

With Chinatown, Robert Towne won the 1975 Oscar for Best Writing - Original Screenplay. Other 1975 Oscar Nominations for Chinatown were: Roman Polanski for Best Director; Jack Nicholson for Best Actor in a Leading Role; Faye Dunaway for Best Actress in a Leading Role; Jerry Goldsmith for Best Music-Original Dramatic Score; Robert Evans for Best Picture; John A Alonzo for Best Cinematography; W. Stewart Campbell, Ruby R. Levitt, and Richard Sylbert for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Anthea Sylbert for Best Costume Design; Charles Grenzbach and Larry Jost for Best Sound; and Sam O'Steen for Best Film Editing. The film fared better, actually, in the British Academy Awards; Robert Towne again won for Best Screenplay, joined this time by Roman Polanski for Best Direction and Jack Nicholson for Best Actor. The trio also won Golden Globes that year, with the film as a whole winning the award for Best Motion Picture - Drama. (IMDb, Awards)

Chinatown was actually the first part of a planned trilogy written by Robert Towne about Jake Gittes and Los Angeles. The second part, The Two Jakes, was directed by Nicholson in 1990. Neither Towne nor Nicholson won any awards for this sequel. (IMDb, Trivia)

Los Angeles, the setting for Chinatown, was actually one of the filming locations: Gittes spies on Mulwray while he is boating at Echo Park Lake. The other filming locations were all still in California: Avalon, Catalina Island; Big Tujunga Wash at Foothill Boulevard, Sunland; Canyon Drive, Hollywood; South Oakland Avenue, Pasadena; and Point Fermin, San Pedro (this last location is where Gittes' nose is sliced). (IMDb, Filming Locations)

Jake Gittes was named after Nicholson's friend, a producer named Harry Gittes. (IMDb, Trivia)

Some odd items are included in the contents of Ida Sessions' pocketbook when Jake Gittes rummages through it, specifically a $2 bill and a Screen Actors Guild membership card. (IMDb, Trivia)

The central conspiracy in Chinatown is actually based on a real historical event: the 1908 Owne River Valley Scandal. The name of the film's Water and Power Engineer, Hollis Mulwray, is a play on the name of the real-life head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power during that scandal, William Mulholland (1855-1935). Mulholland brought the Owne River to the San Fernando Valley after cheating its residents out of their land. Robert Towne got much of his information regarding this scandal from Carey McWilliams' interpretive history entitled Southern California Country, an Island on the Land. (Ebert)

Jerry Goldsmith scored the film for an odd combination of instruments: two harps, one trumpet, a string section, and four pianos. The reason for using four pianos is that Goldsmith had the players use them in four different ways throughout the film: one was a standard performance piano, one was intentionally detuned, one was played by the strings inside the piano (instead of by the keys), and one was "prepared" (a technique where the sounds produced are altered by placing various objects on the strings while playing). (Davis, 58)

Critical Analysis

The very name of the Roman Polanski's Chinatown is misleading. Without looking at a cast list or reading a review, you might even expect this to be another contribution to the massive martial arts genre, permeated with Oriental culture (or cliches thereof) and consisting of a string of endless fight scenes with some sort of loose plot leading from one to the next. Even upon digging as deep as the videocassette sleeve and discovering that Jack Nicholson plays an L.A. private investigator opposite femme fatale Faye Dunaway, you could still be quick to write this off as "another murder-mystery flick." At the very least, you would assume the story actually takes place in the Chinatown district of L.A. These, however, are just the first round of falsehoods and fallacies you would encounter in the course of viewing this deceptive 1974 film.

Chinatown, generally considered to be a revival of the film noir genre that dominated America cinema from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s (Cook, 449-453), bears much resemblance to the classic private eye films that precede it. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) appears to be of the same brand of hard-boiled independent vigilante we are used to seeing in Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and even Lieutenant Columbo. Gittes is an ex-cop who felt the need to operate outside the confines of the insincere and ineffective police department, and now earns his living gathering evidence for paying clients. For a while, his role in the film is also consistent with that of the archetypal sleuth; he serves to gradually reveal small pieces of a larger puzzle that eventually all fall into place, at which point the mystery is solved and the finger is pointed at the "bad guy." The film even contains all the other typical players in your standard "whodunnit" mystery plot: the seductive femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway), the always-suspicious antagonist Noah Cross (John Huston), the uncooperative lawman Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), the inevitable murder victim Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), and the tough henchman Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jenson; also a nameless knife-wielding thug played by Polanski himself). The classic recipe has, in its simplest form, been fulfilled. (Man, 139-142)

The success of Chinatown, however, lies in the ways in which it transcends the stock murder-mystery story. Even from the start, Gittes does not match the image of past private-eyes. Instead of the sparsely-furnished hole-in-the-wall office you would expect, Gittes works in an environment of style: an office building with brand-new venetian blinds in every room, three-piece designer suits and well-groomed facial features, a full liquor cabinet, and a small paid staff (two operatives and a secretary) at his command; certainly not the humble character usually associated with the gumshoe image. The irony of this clean-cut first impression, though, is obvious to the point of being humorous, as our first indication of Gittes's dirty line of work comes from racy pictures being flipped through by his distraught client Curly; Gittes is a muckraker, earning his living by taking pictures of people engaged in extramarital affairs to support his clients' divorce cases. By engaging in such low-brow activities in order to elevate his personal appearance to high-class, Gittes has shattered the wall of morality that usually separates the private-eye from the world he must investigate; he has bought right into commercial culture and become consumed by the same amoral greed that grips everyone else (Man, 140, 144). This image foreshadows Gittes' inability to fulfill the role of the ingenious private investigator when a real issue arises, because he is not distanced enough from the outside world to appropriately observe or change it. One could surmise, even, that Gittes is on some level aware of this shortcoming, since he shows great reluctance to even tackle the simplest stage of investigation with regards to the high-profile water commissioner Hollis Mulwray; when a woman posing as Mulwray's wife hires Gittes to investigate him for evidence of adultery, Gittes instinctively tries to sidestep it by advising the woman to let the matter go if she truly loves her husband. Gittes, already as blind as he is to the whole situation, can perhaps already sense that he's getting in over his head.

Chinatown's reliance on murder-mystery cliches that get broken down is so effective, in fact, that Gittes himself can not escape the pre-established illusion. Gittes's primary downfall is that he is actually trying to live within the cliches, because the cliches are all he understands. The truth is continually clouded for him because he is always trying to fit new clues and information into predetermined categories that lead to given stock scenarios: Mulwray's involvement with the young girl "must" be adultery (he's really her stepfather), Mulwray's murder "must" have been committed by Evelyn out of jealousy (despite all the evidence regarding his death as a way to keep the water scandal from getting out), the hidden Katherine "must" be a kidnapped murder witness (she's really being hidden from Cross by her protective mother/sister), the union between Evelyn and her father Noah Cross "must" have been rape (really just another of Cross's manipulative deeds, leading his daughter into sensual pleasures in an otherwise bleak existence), and Cross's water scandal "must" be about material greed (instead of the power trip Cross has proven his lust for on countless occasions). Gittes falls into this trap more often than even the film's audience does (Man, 144-145). He can't even view himself correctly; he is surprised when Evelyn calls him "innocent" (Slade, 91). Gittes tries so hard to fit the mold of the "ideal" detective, that he instead makes himself out to be a bumbling clown, an image made complete by the nose bandage he wears for most of the film; his lifestyle has made him far too innocent, so that he misperceives things continually (Lev, 56).

Gittes' physical appearance, at the beginning and throughout the course of the film, runs parallel to that of Chinatown's 1930's L.A. Both are visually appealing on the surface. Southern California's weather is bright and sunny, the people are all as well-groomed as Gittes, and the general look of things in the early scenes of the film is clean and colorful. But, as with Gittes, all of L.A.'s dirt is beneath the surface, corrupting the city from within. This hidden ugliness seeping out into the city from its core is represented by a gradual shift of the visual representations of both the scenery and of Gittes himself. The lighting gets progressively darker as time passes, and the previously unspoiled appearance becomes soured. When Gittes's nose gets sliced by the Roman Polanski character, ruining his pristine and unlined face, it is almost simultaneous with the ruining of the "face" of L.A. (Lev, xxi, 55); the same connection can be made of the "flaw" in Evelyn Mulwray's eye, which Jake discovers while alone with her in her stylish mansion.

The discovery of each other's physical flaws - his sliced nose and her flawed eye - is a key moment in the film, for (at least) two reasons. First off, this unfolding of their imperfections leads them to bed, much the same way that the movie as a whole suggests settling into sensual pleasures and personal luxury in light of the hopelessness of morals and prosocial action against the mass corruption in capitalist society. Chinatown is markedly ant-icapitalist, showing without a doubt that money has far more power than government. Even Marxism is more hopeful in its message, suggesting an alternative solution, but this movie indicates there is no solution; an individual is far better off serving his own interests and minding his own business than trying to beat the system (Lev, xxi, 58-59)

The scene where Gittes discovers the flaw in Evelyn's eye is also key because of the attention it brings to "vision" as a central theme in the movie. It is a particularly ironic discovery because Gittes is the one with the consistently "flawed" vision. Another literal occurrence of this theme is the key piece of evidence Jake finds that eventually leads him to Noah Cross as Hollis Mulwray's killer: a pair of glasses in the pool behind Evelyn's house. But there are far more non-literal examples of this theme: the superficial cleanliness of L.A. and of Chinatown's characters, the snooping and spying that Gittes does to earn his living, and Gittes' continual blindness to the truth. Another sight reference is Cross's gigantic vision of incorporating the San Fernando Valley into Los Angeles, which Gittes never fully perceives. Gittes' shortsightedness comes into play one last time in the closing sequence of the film: his faith in the law force that he has quit is still so strong (despite all his external convictions about its powerlessness and his continual defiance of its mandates) that he trusts that they can fix everything at the end once they hear the truth from his mouth (Slade, 91). Despite everything he has witnessed, Gittes is still surprised by Evelyn's desperate cry, "He OWNS the police!" And, just as they did in his days as a Chinatown cop, the police force lets him down by killing and convicting the wrong person - Evelyn Mulwray - so that Cross goes unharmed (Man, 145). This recurring "vision" motif plays itself out once again in the final scene of the film, with Evelyn bleeding from her eye after she is shot to death, and Cross covering the young Katherine's eyes to shield her from Evelyn's death (and lead her away into his world, where she is probably doomed to repeat the life of her mother/sister before her).

The water scandal in Chinatown, made in 1974, can be seen to stand for such then-current issues as they OPEC oil cartel, the Agnew bribery, and, most obviously, the Watergate scandal. The association of the "threat from water" motif with the fragility of human existence is a common archetype in movies. The motif usually involves physical danger or death, whether in the form of murder by drowning (The Parallax View), shipwreck disaster (The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic), or creatures from the sea (Jaws, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Here, it is a deeper form of fragility; the whole city is falling prey to a behind-the-scenes political/business scandal. Even the man perpetrating the scandal, Noah Cross, has a sort of moral fragility that allows the greed and power from the scandal to consume him. Cross thinks he is doing good in all his evils; in his mind, he is helping L.A. by expanding it into the valley and "bringing it to the water", and he is protecting and raising Katherine like a good father should. What even he doesn't see, in all his power and influence, is that his treatment of Evelyn and Katherine is an extension of his exploitation of the business world - the water scandal - to a more personal/intimate/sexual level (Lev, xxi, 54, 56-58).

In the end, we finally see why Chinatown is named as it is, despite the fact that only the last five minutes or so takes place in that location. The Chinatown district's lawlessness and political immunity has extended to encompass all of L.A. (Slade, 91), and its inscrutability due to prevailing ignorance (of its dominant foreign [Oriental] culture, as demonstrated by Gittes's' tasteless Chinaman joke from the barber shop) has extended to encompass human existence as a whole. Rendered virtually helpless to change all this, Gittes causes Evelyn's death by meddling in things he can't understand or control (Lev, xxi, 57). Gittes' failure to save Evelyn and Katherine is a reenactment of an earlier failure during his career as a cop in Chinatown - driving home the futility of an individual trying to beat the prevailing evil in the world around us (Man, 142-143). Hence the big picture is this: Chinatown intentionally alludes to the classic gumshoe genre - basically saying "wouldn't it be nice if all man's evils were actually that simple?" - and then capsizes those established expectations as a way of portraying the loss of faith in American society (Man, 139). How should we, the audience, respond to this? Perhaps it should be the same way Gittes's operative Walsh does with the movie's closing statement: "Forget it... it's Chinatown."

Works Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Davis, Richard. Complete Guide to Film Scoring. Ed. Jonathan Feist. Boston: Berklee Press, 1999.

Ebert, Roger. "Chinatown." The Chicago Sun-Times. 6 February 2000. Accessed 11 March 2002 .

The Internet Movie Database. Accessed 8 April 2002:

Lev, Peter. American Films of the70s: Conflicting Visions . Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Man, Glenn. Radical Visions: American Film Renaissance, 1967-1976. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Slade, Tony. "Chinatown." The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Christopher Lyon and Susan Doll. Volume I: Films. Chicago: St. James Press, 1984. 4 vols.