WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Chinatown.’
Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a gripping thriller with a truly nasty sting in its tail.
Jack Nicholson plays the seedy private detective Jake Gittes, who investigates a conspiracy surrounding the Los Angeles water supply in the 1930s. During the course of his investigation, he uncovers a disturbing personal tragedy as he becomes involved with the chief water engineer’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway.
A Powerful Script
Key to the movie’s power is Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script, which is widely regarded as one of the finest screenplays ever written for Hollywood. It was partly inspired by the true story of William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, who, on March 12, 1928, declared that the St. Francis Dam was safe, just hours before it failed catastrophically, with the resulting flood killing at least 600 people. In Towne’s screenplay, Mulholland becomes Hollis Mulwray, and the story turns into a fictional tale of the corrupt manipulation of the Los Angeles water supply for profit.
Towne wrote the script with Jack Nicholson in mind for the character of Gittes, the private eye who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the shadowy affairs of Mulwray’s associates. Nicholson is said to have been responsible for the hiring of Polanski, renowned for the psychological thrillers Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Polanski
was in Europe at the time, having left the US after the murder of his wife in 1969. He was tempted back by the strength of Towne’s script, although Polanski and Towne had many differences over the final version.
There were two elements in particular that Polanski changed. First was the tragic and disturbing ending. Second was the decision not to use the voice-over narrative that so many private-eye film-noirs had employed in the past. Polanski insisted on letting the audience discover each new twist as Jake Gittes does. The effect of this is that both Jake and the audience are much more in the dark and far more unsettled by each new revelation.
Gittes’ desperate attempt to make sense of everything makes him a different kind of private eye from Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe a generation earlier in hard-boiled detective movies such as The Maltese Falcon. The audience knows that Marlowe will triumph in the end, but it becomes apparent that Gittes is going to mess up again and again, as he jumps to all the wrong conclusions. At the start of the movie, for instance, he is commissioned by the wife of Hollis Mulwray to prove her husband’s adultery. Very quickly Gittes hands her the seemingly incriminating photos—only he’s got it wrong twice over. First, the woman who commissioned him is not Mulwray’s wife but an impostor.
Second, the young woman that he snaps out with Mulwray is not his mistress at all, as he, and we, the audience, will discover much later. Later in the movie, Gittes wrongly assumes that the real Evelyn Mulwray murdered her husband. An audience familiar with the roles of femmes fatales in earlier noir movies would naturally assume the same. But Mrs. Mulwray is the real victim, and the truth is so unsettling that Gittes can barely take it in. The real villain of the piece, it turns out, is the seemingly urbane old man Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father. He is the wealthy man whose determination to use the city’s water supply to his own advantage leads to the murder of his former business partner, Evelyn’s husband Hollis Mulwray.
Black & White
There is a twist at the end of Chinatown that makes the movie disturbingly different from other crime thrillers, and makes it linger long in the mind. In most movies about power and corruption, the detective simply homes in on, and then exposes, those responsible for a crime and its cover-up. But at the crucial moment in Chinatown, the focus is diverted away from Cross’s efforts to control the water supply. Instead, we are faced with a shocking revelation that appears to come out of the blue. Right at the end of the movie, we are left with the deeply disturbing image of Cross—who appears to have got away with everything—comforting his granddaughter.
Chinatown, it turns out, is not just about power and corruption. It also concerns the whole notion of male control. At one point, Gittes asks Cross why he feels the need to be richer: “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gittes,” Cross replies, “The future.” Women and water are the source of the future that Cross wants to control. And in his own way, Gittes, too, is pursuing control, probing and sticking his nose in where it is unwelcome.
His investigations lead to one of Chinatown’s nastiest and most memorable scenes. Gittes has his nose slit by a thug, played by Polanski himself: “You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.” It is a kind of emasculation, and Gittes’s dogged determination to solve the mystery reflects his need to regain control.
The problem for Gittes is that he is living, metaphorically, in Chinatown, a place that holds bad memories for him, which date back to his time spent in the police force. Yet it is Gittes himself who in the end chooses Chinatown, a world where anything goes, for the movie’s tragic denouement. There is no point in trying to do the right thing, his former police colleague tells him in the movie’s final line: