Paying homage to the true film noirs of the 1930’s and ’40’s, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown could easily have come from the hardboiled pen of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a former cop who now specializes in divorce investigations, meets a woman pretending to be the wife of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water and Power Company. Claiming that people have seen Hollis with another woman, she asks Jake to investigate her husband’s alleged infidelity. This leads to Jake’s struggles to uncover who’s behind a land- and water-fraud conspiracy that’s led to murder.
Chinatown’s dark theme is just one of the elements that places it square in the category of neo-noir, the second generation of the genre known as film noir. Though this theme is also present in classic noir, Chinatown and other neo-noir representatives (like 1997’s L.A. Confidential) emphasize malignant commercialism and obsession with money to a far greater extent than did their noir predecessors. The dishonesty of authority figures; the corruption of the ‘American Dream’; the helplessness of common people in the face of evil; ignorance and misidentification; and haunted pasts all combine to forge a first-rate bridge between original and neo-noir.
Neo-noir themes, motifs, and symbols abound. Chinatown suggests that the very notion of an honest, trustworthy leader is a myth. In Chinatown, people in positions of power are never what they seem to be, and their true nature is always harmful to the people beneath them. Cross (John Huston), who has no official power but who has used his money to essentially run most of the city and the outlying area, uses the people he controls as pawns for his personal gain. The district attorney in Chinatown instructs those around him that the police will ignore crimes committed. Russ Yelburton, a polite, “highly respectable family man”, manipulates the public for personal gain and is involved in the slandering and murder of his boss. Even Lieutenant Escobar, a man whom Jake has worked with and respects, is willing to let injustice occur without punishing the people who brought it to pass. In the world of Chinatown, anyone with any authority becomes a mere cog in a machine that maintains corruption.
Another thematic element of Chinatown looks at the underbelly of “the American dream”, the idea that common people can move into unclaimed wilderness and transform it into valuable land. Water — and the irrigation systems that provide it — first helped the American West blossom into the rich and thriving area it is it is today. Cross relies on Hollis Mulwray for diverting water to help turn Los Angeles into a thriving metropolis. But Cross turns this effort into an excuse for murder, killing Hollis when he interferes with Cross’s plans for a new reservoir. Similarly, Russ Yelburton is persuaded to betray both the public and a man he admires in order to gain greater control of the water. Chinatown shows the promise of America’s future betrayed by the desires of a corrupted present.
No matter how good a character is, or how noble his or her intentions are, in perfect neo-noir thematic style, Polanski shows how impossible it is for common people to overcome or escape the corruption so pervasive in the world. Unlike what Jake and so many other characters tell themselves, corruption isn’t confined to just one area — almost as if it were in the water itself.
Many of the people in Chinatown claim ignorance of the corruption that surrounds them, often with tragic results. Throughout the movie, Jake stays stubbornly incapable of putting the pieces of the case together correctly. Evelyn pretends to know nothing about the woman her husband is seeing. Ida Sessions professes her ignorance to the full scope of the crime she committed and therefore cannot see that she is in deep enough to be murdered. As Polanski demonstrates, being ignorant of the crime that surrounds you offers no protection from its destructions.
Most of the characters in the movie have some dark shame or secret haunting their past, a situation that on a larger scale echoes the hidden corruption of the world in which they live. When people live too long in a city with deep-rooted darkness, they will naturally end up with a bit of it in themselves. And some past misfortunes show that even innocent mistakes bring about deadly consequences. Others show that even good people are capable of being involved with corruption. Jake’s past and his inability to protect the nameless woman in Chinatown repeats itself to show how impossible it is to escape the evil nature, or tendency toward evil, inherent in many people.
Chinatown, a place where secret organizations rule, the law is meaningless, and good intentions are brutally suppressed, serves as the symbol for the true nature of every city. Corruption not only exists but has become so much a part of the way societies work that even good men do not attempt to fight it. Noble leadership is a lie, civic leaders are willing to do anything to the public in order to line their pockets, and men like Cross are above the law.
The injury Jake sustains at the reservoir serves as a symbol for Jake’s limited heroism. While the typical movie hero quickly shakes off attacks, Jake wears the marks of his injury throughout most of the film. The bandage portrays Jake as subject to human frailty and fallibility. Jake deflects questions about the injury with sarcasm, and he uses his cynicism and crassness to hide his sense of decency. His weakness is in fact what makes Jake appealing.
Chinatown reveals a true theme of neo-noir: anything (or anyone) that cannot adapt to the corrupt environment is eventually destroyed.
- Director: Roman Polanski
- Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
- Screenplay: Robert Towne, Roman Polanski
- Editor: Sam O’Steen
- Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
· Winner, Best Original Screenplay (Robert Towne)
· Winner, Best Picture, Drama (Robert Evans)
· Winner, Best Director (Roman Polanski)
· Winner, Best Actor, Drama (Jack Nicholson)
· Winner, Best Screenplay (Robert Towne)
National Society of Film Critics Awards:
· Winner, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson)
New York Film Critics Awards:
· Winner, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson)
Writers Guild of America Awards:
· Winner, Best Original Screenplay, Drama (Robert Towne)