Chinatown (1974) Review

Chinatown (1974) Director: Roman Polanski

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”


In the great American tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Chinatown takes us back to the hazy Los Angeles noir murder mysteries of yesteryear. It was part of the extraordinary, albeit brief, era of Robert Evans productions at Paramount, which also included movies like The Godfather. Written by Robert Towne, Chinatown has often been called the greatest screenplay ever written. He later said it was inspired by a chapter in Carey McWilliams’ Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) and a West magazine article on Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Perhaps the film is to some extent Roman Polanski’s personal reflections on the decay and decline of our civilization; this was the first Hollywood film he made after the dark and tragic events that rocked his life five years prior when his 8 months pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was savagely murdered by the minions of Charles Manson. Three years later, Polanski himself would be charged with drugging and raping a minor only to flee the country where he remains to this day. Chinatown is a tragic movie about the inevitable triumph of evil. It is a metaphor for the futility of good intentions; a farewell to America prior to Watergate, Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution and myriad other cultural upheavals. A sequel to Chinatown called The Two Jakes was made in 1990 directed by and starring Jack Nicholson but it failed to garner critical acclaim.

In Chinatown we are brought back to Los Angeles during the drought-ridden 1930s. The plot is based on the very real water wars that have pitted Los Angeles against the inland farmers for more than a century. Jack Nicholson plays J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a sardonic private-eye who appears in every single scene of the movie. An unexpected request is brought to him by a woman claiming to be “Evelyn Mulwray.” She wants Gittes to tail her husband whom she suspects of being unfaithful. Her husband is Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. At the beginning of the film we find Gittes attempting to persuade Mrs. Mulwray not to dig into her husband’s prospective affair –“it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” He prefers the innocence of un-truth in a corrupt world. Nevertheless, Gittes is forced into the muck. Gittes tails Mulwray and takes photos of him with another woman, and the photos are then featured on the front page of the newspaper the following morning. In response, Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her lawyer serves him with legal documents. Gittes soon realizes he has been set-up but before he can interrogate Hollis Mulwray, his lifeless corpse is fished out of the reservoir -Hollis Mulwray has been murdered. Gittes continues to investigate but he is attacked by a group of henchmen who warn him to stay away, despite the fact that water is being recklessly dumped during the drought. Gittes’ nose is sliced by one of the henchmen, none other than Roman Polanski.

Gittes visits Mrs. Mulwray’s father, Noah Cross (played by John Huston who wrote the original screenplay for 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, and whose daughter Anjelica Huston Polanski reportedly considered for the role of Mrs. Mulwray). He was once business partners with the late Mr. Mulwray, until Mulwray discovered a covert scheme to control the water supply in the Central Valley. Gittes surmises the plan: to parch the land in the Valley in order to reduce its price for purchase. After Mulwray was murdered the land was then purchased in a few secret deals owned by a group of elderly, senile people in a retirement home. Gittes is led on a wild ride of twists and suspicions with Mrs. Mulwray -is she trustworthy? Amidst her shadowy relationship with her father, we learn that he has apparently repeatedly assaulted her and produced a “Daughter! –Sister! –Daughter!” Her name is Katherine, thewoman who initially posed as Mrs. Mulwray. The ending returns Gittes to Chinatown where he is arrested by the police, only for a shootout to occur between Mrs. Mulwray and her father wherein Mrs. Mulwray is killed. We end with the vanity of Gittes choosing to become his own hero, only to be swallowed up by evil anyway. It is a pessimistic conclusion that contemplates the audience’s frivolous faith in heroism. In the old days when Gittes worked the beat in Chinatown, he did as little as possible, avoiding controversy and conflict. This is more or less his advice at the beginning of the film –“it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” At one point in the old days he tried to help a woman but she got “hurt,” and now the bleak cycle has repeated itself in Chinatown. The savior complex is futile. How should we address a society replete with widespread corruption? Ignore it? Act like a hero? Participate in it? Or just get by with the bare minimum? In the end, we are only powerless to stop it -“forget it Jake it’s Chinatown.”

The ending originally crafted by Robert Towne was happy and redemptive, but Roman Polanski refused to shoot it, so Polanski and Jack Nicholson wrote a new ending that was featured in the final version of the film.

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