Is Chinatown the best private eye film ever? It may well be. Nearing its thirty-fifth anniversary, it deserves a reconsideration and a celebration. It is a symbolically rich film that reverberates with meaning; it takes the alienation and loss of The Maltese Falcon, the prototypical private eye film, to a new level, and it articulates the personal pain of its director Roman Polanski, which makes it an auteur classic.
When it was first released in 1974 Chinatown was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including best film of the year, but it was in competition with The Godfather Part ll, which was perhaps the best film of the 1970s. The sole Oscar Chinatown received was for Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne. Whether or not Chinatown won Oscars is irrelevant to its stature. Chinatown is not just a stylish private eye yarn or an effective Hollywood entertainment; it deserves to be rated among the best films that explore the American experience and the human condition.
One of the qualities that most sets Chinatown apart is its depth. And a major source of its depth is duality. There is a motif of pairs throughout; it starts innocuously enough, but eventually the pairs provide an unavoidable I dark side. At the beginning of the film the pairs quickly become apparent. There are two pictures of women on the wall, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has two partners, and Jake is showing Curly (Burt Young) pictures of his wife having sex with another man (she has two lovers). Jake then takes on Mrs. Mulwray as a client, but he soon finds out that there are two Mrs. Mulwrays; the first one is an imposter. And when Hollis (the husband of the real Mrs. Mulwray) is drowned, a derelict also is drowned. Gittes is contrasted with a corrupt private eye Mulvihill, and the police are represented by the decent Lieutenant Escobar and the crude Loach; it is Loach who fires the shot that kills Evelyn Mulwray.
It is not only the people who come in pairs. There are two watches, one of which has its crystal broken by Hollis' car under which Jake placed it to see the time the car left the premises. There are two pronunciations of Gittes -- Noah Cross calls him "Gits." There are two pronunciations of the word grass -- the Chinese yardman calls it "glass." Evelyn Mulwray nervously lights two cigarettes in Jake's office. One glass pane is broken in the door of Ida Sessions' apartment, which allows Jake to enter. There is a two dollar bill in Ida's billfold. Twice there is a man with only one shoe (a trademark for writer Robert Towne since he also used it in The Last Detail); the body of Hollis has only one shoe, and Jake loses a shoe when he is caught in the churning water at the dam. The little man (played by Polanski) slits one of Jake's two nostrils. And in the orange grove when Jake is rousted by the farmers, one rouster has a single crutch.
The eyes are a basic symbol in Chinatown, and the pairs help us to understand their significance. Obviously glasses correct and focus vision; and Jake's vision should be clear if he is to solve the meaning of the murder of Hollis. In the orange grove a farmer knocks one of the lenses out of Jake's sunglasses, rendering them useless. One of the lenses is cracked in the glasses Jake finds in the pool on the Mulwrays' estate; Evelyn tells Jake they didn't belong to Hollis: "He didn't wear bifocals." But Noah Cross does.
One of Evelyn's eyes is flawed. Jake discovers "something black in the green part of your eye." Evelyn haltingly tells him, "It's a f-flaw. In the iris." Jake says, "A flaw?" and Evelyn responds, "It's sort of a birthmark." It is the mark of Cain given to her by her father. When Jake goes to Curly's for help, Curly's wife has one of her eyes blackened, obviously punishment for her running around. It foreshadows the final shot of Evelyn with one of her eyes shot out. Previously there was another moment of the same foreshadowing when Evelyn let her head hit the car horn on her steering wheel.
One may be reluctant to accept the significance in all the pairs, but it seems impossible to ignore that a meaningful pattern is at work. Dualities abound. The pairs in Chinatown show light and darkness, vision and blindness, wholeness and imperfection, innocence and corruption. Everything seems to have another side -- a dark side. As Noah tells Jake, everyone has the capacity for darkness, He says of his incest, "I don't blame myself. See, Mr. Gits, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything." Polanski's vision is dark: the human condition is corrupted. we are flawed, inchoate, incomplete, futile. we can't see clearly; our faculties are not intact. In Polanski's vision, there is no way out; Evelyn is shot and killed, the evil Noah Cross envelopes Catherine and spirits her away, and Jake is left impotently muttering the ironic refrain "as little as possible" as he is led away from desolate Chinatown.
There would not be a Chinatown if there hadn't been a The Maltese Falcon before it. One crucial way Chinatown relates to The Maltese Falcon is the theme of the fall of man. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade let Brigid O'Shaughnessy "take the fall." The fall is a common John Huston theme. The fact that Huston directed The Maltese Falcon and acted in Chinatown is a further connection. The fall from the garden is announced in the opening frames of Chinatown when we see photographs of Curly's wife having sex with a man in a natural setting. Jake is showing the photos to her cuckolded husband, the distraught Curly. Hollis, Evelyn's husband, is killed in a garden. But Jake is no savior; he tries to help Evelyn, but his efforts result in her death. It is ironic deja vu. As he tells Evelyn in bed about a previous experience, "I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I made sure she was hurt."
"Was there a woman involved?" asks Evelyn.
"Of course," Jake answers.
The characters' loss of innocence is emphasized. Twice there is a reference to Jake's lack of innocence. Evelyn tells him, "Hollis seems to think you're an innocent man," to which Jake responds, "I've been accused of many things but never that." Later in Evelyn's house, Jake says, "Easy. It's an innocent question," to which Evelyn responds, "No question from you is innocent." -
Evelyn Mulwray is Eve to Jake Gittes' Adam. Both are flawed and vulnerable. Noah Cross is the snake, at the end serpentinely carrying Catherine away. The fall is complete, with Jake left as shattered as Scottie in Vertigo, an equally devastating fall from grace and hope.
Chinatown is archetypal in its use of myth. The City of Angels, Los Angeles, has been co-opted by avaricious materialists. When Jake asks Noah why he is controlling the water and corrupting the land, Noah answers, "The future, Mr. Gits, the future." The American Dream has been usurped by the Noah Crosses. Cross has a new connotation. The Noahs of the twentieth century are not blessed men building arks; they are damned men building sluices to run off the water for profit. Ironically, water is no longer everywhere; in the twentieth century it is now precious.
Jake Gittes is in the tradition of both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Like them he has an adversarial relationship with the police; once a member of the police force himself, he has gone into private detective work, asserting his individuality. But like other modern detectives he is not completely noble -- he is no knight walking the mean streets. Instead he is a fallible human being, concentrating on divorce cases, peeping in windows. In Jake's surveillance of Hollis and his "girlfriend," Polanski emphasizes the voyeur element with Jake's camera lens. Although he is not knightly, Jake still has some standards; he still has a little bit of honor. When he is accused of blackmail, Jake strongly asserts his ethics to Escobar. Jake says vehemently, "I wouldn't extort a nickel from my worst enemy, that's where I draw the line."
But despite his attempts, Jake falters -- he is duped by the phony Mrs. Mulwray, he gets his nose slit by the little man, he is knocked unconscious by the farmers, and he leads Evelyn into her awful destiny. He cannot control fate; it controls him. This is one of the qualities that makes Jake universal. He is an alienated man, and we can identify with his trying to make things work out. He is cynical; he doesn't trust Evelyn, but he does try to do the right thing. But what he cannot change is Chinatown -- the symbol of shattered idealism. When Jake is helped away by his two operatives at the end, muttering his wretched creed, one of the operatives says, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Jerry Goldsmith's haunting music expresses the dream turned into nightmare. If Towne's original script had remained intact, and Jake and Evelyn had escaped to Mexico with Catherine, it would have been like Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway -- an upbeat, stylish vehicle. But Polanski's angst makes Chinatown very different; it becomes a shattering experience for Jake, Roman Polanski, and the audience.
Even though Chinatown is set in the 1930s, it is a film that expresses the sensibilities of the 1970s up to the present. It captures the contemporary sense of alienation and failed dreams. On the phone Ida Sessions asks Jake, "Are you alone?" Jake responds, "Isn't everyone?" Jake is modern, alienated man searching for some connection, some spiritual sense, in a cruel world.
What better actors to play modern woman and modern man than Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson? On reconsideration Faye Dunaway probably should have bested Ellen Burstyn -- who won the best actress Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Dunaway is compelling as the neurotic female who is both sister and mother of the same child. She is frustrated, vulnerable, and dangerous. Dunaway subtly relates the pain, fear, and inhibition in her character. Unable to say the word "husband" when introducing Jake at the Home, having difficulty with the word "flaw" when she tells about the imperfection in her eye, Dunaway is like a trembling moth, trying to avoid the light and drawn to it at the same tine.
One of the nest dramatic moments in the cinema of the 1970s is when Gittes faces Evelyn and forces the truth from her. Evelyn confesses about Catherine that, "She's my daughter." Jake slaps her hard, and she says, "She's my sister." He strikes her again. She says, "She's my daughter." Another slap. "My sister. My daughter." Slap. He says, "I said I want the truth" and knocks her down. And she utters the devastating line, "She's my sister and my daughter." It is unforgettable filmmaking.
If Faye Dunaway's Evelyn is memorable, so too is Nicholson's Jake Gittes, the fallible, wise-cracking, cynical, romantic loner. Like Humphrey Bogart who is the prototypical private eye, having played both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Nicholson is not a traditional leading man. Like Bogart, he is not classically handsome. Nicholson's Jake Gittes is boisterous, crude, and anti-Establishment. Gittes has a picture of Groucho Marx on his office wall. Nicholson provides him with his patented grin and a spirit which resonates. But like Bobby Dupee, another loner Nicholson portrayed, he scrutinizes himself in the mirror, and may see nothing.
If there is one actor who represents the angst, absurdity, and alienation of the last third of the twentieth century, it is Nicholson. Nicholson's characters in the films of the 1970s are like a Who's Who of alienation. From the idealistic alcoholic Southern lawyer in Easy Rider in 1969, Nicholson created an indelible collection of memorable alienated characters, fighting the system and themselves. His portrayal of Bobby Dupee in Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces showed a character who rejected family and society, and at the end went on the road as a drifter on an endless quest of nothingness. In the under-appreciated King of Marvin Gardens (1972) also directed by Rafelson, Nicholson played David Staebler, the withdrawn half of two brothers. In 1975 the year after the release of Chinatown, Nicholson won his first Oscar for his portrayal of the ballsy McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All of Nicholson's characters want love, but they all are fated to lose it. Chinatown is the centerpiece of that loss.
Roman Polanski has never made as complete a film as Chinatown. When Sharon Tate, his pregnant wife, was murdered by the Manson family, it seemed impossible for a film to capture the horror and devastation of that loss. But with Chinatown Polanski fashioned an unforgettable elegy, an eternal votive light in the consuming darkness.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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