Gittes Chinatown Analysis Essay
[originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
THE TITLES, shadow-masked to the old 1.33 format, roll up against a grey moderne background and give way to a series of black-and-white still photos. In the photos a man and a woman are making love, awkwardly, with their clothes on, in the woods. We hear groans—do they go with the pictures? Ecstasy? Agony? Just exertion? The camera pulls back; we see the photographs are being shuffled in a fat workman’s hands. Seated behind a desk nearby, tokenly commiserating but clearly exasperated, Jack Nicholson wears an expensive-looking cream-colored suit. The suit goes with the pre-smog daylight in the room; the light is itself like heavy cream; it looks as if it would feel like heavy cream to walk through. The fat man shoots shy, helpless glances at Nicholson, looking up from the pictures, looking back at the pictures. Then he throws the pictures away and begins to blunder around the walls. “All right, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had ’em installed on Wednesday…. What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.”
Nicholson plays a private detective named J.J.—one of them’s for Jake—Gittes. Unlike Philip Marlowe, more like Sam Spade, he has not merely an office but a suite, and at least two operatives work for him. For, not with—he’s the boss. Unlike either Marlowe or Spade (at least as far as the movies tell us), he does “matrimonial work”; indeed, as he will declare later in the film, it’s his “meeteeyay.” He pushes Curly out the door fraternally—Curly is mumbling about not being able to pay until he makes another run on his fishing boat—and lets the creamy light carry him into another room where operatives Walsh and Duffy are waiting with the company’s next client, a Mrs. Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray thinks her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes affects just enough disbelief to permit Mrs. Mulwray the consolation of knowing that that’s the last thing a man like him would expect the husband of a lady like her to be doing. “Mrs. Mulwray, have you ever heard the expression `Let sleeping dogs lie’? You’re better off not knowing.” But Mrs. Mulwray wants to know and she has the money to pay for Gittes’ services. Her husband—Gittes is genuinely surprised at this one—is the head of the Los Angeles water company.
Last year I read Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key in a volume I’d picked off a shelf at Goodwill several years earlier. The back cracked every time I opened it and the pages were so yellow and brittle that the edges were bruised by my thumbs. It isn’t necessary to read The Glass Key in such an atmospheric format, but I must say my experience was pleasurably enhanced by it, and I recalled the media inadvertency as I watched the early sequences of Chinatown: the film seemed a sort of bass-ackwards variation of the same thing, as though I were seeing it through—or at least through the memory of—those yellowed pages. John Alonzo’s razor-sharp, layers-deep Technicolor cinematography reinforces the chromatic effect quite literally, but so do Richard Sylbert’s decor, the costumes, the makeup evoke a time out of mind and memory as persuasive, and as imaginatively transfigured, as the world of Bertolucci’s Il conformista. Period pieces are automatically suspect in this era of super-commercialized nostalgia trips of every description, so I hasten to insist that Chinatown is much more than the sum of all its panama hats, classic cars, bee-stung lips, and references to Seabiscuit in the Racing Form. In one inexpressibly marvelous moment, Jake Gittes opens a drawer in the desk belonging to Hollis Mulwray, a man he has seen, shadowed, studied, and helped stigmatize without ever actually meeting him, knowing him; the drawer contains a leather case holding some delicate pliers and tweezers, and there are a couple of neat file boxes; Gittes doesn’t particularly look at any of this stuff and recloses the drawer. The event has absolutely no dramatic significance whatever except as a thing that a private dick might matter-of-factly do, but the sense of that being a 1937 executive’s desk drawer is overpowering—not as period re-creation but (another viewer of the film has confessed to the same intuition) as an evocation of some childhood moment when one peered into the leathery-smelling, brown-and-maroon-colored dimness of an adult desk drawer (as opposed to a mere upper lefthand repository of pens, pencils, and unmarked stationery) out of which business was done with the world. Amateur Freudians may make merry with all this, and welcome. I offer it as one index of the suggestive force of Chinatown and how its abundant production values afford, rather than the hollow display of The Great Gatsby or The Sting, a verification of the organic, inhabited relatedness of a life-system both running and suffocating on its own atmosphere.
I was sold on Chinatown long before Nicholson opened that perhaps-less-than-universally-relevant drawer, and nothing in the ensuing two hours or so unsold me. If, like Addison deWitt, I am available once more for dancing in the streets, it’s because there’s been too great an interval between this film and the last new picture—Gumshoe? Bad Company?—that reminded me what a surprising, intoxicating, renewing experience movies can be. I thought I ought to mention that fairly early on, because I’d like it to be on record for whatever recommendation value it might have, and also because I must now advise you to read on only at your own peril if you haven’t seen the film yet; for Chinatown is a mystery, and if I’m to talk about it I have to give some things away.
MOST REVIEWS or remarks about Chinatown—at least the ones I’ve run across—have included some mention of The Big Sleep and/or The Maltese Falcon. John Huston is in Chinatown and John Huston directed The Maltese Falcon—a coincidence not to be overlooked, even if Huston’s experience as a performer by now includes such unauteurish turns as Candy and Myra Breckinridge. The Big Sleep has eased past Falcon as the official private-eye film classic and has begun to be cited in casual, workaday movie reviews with alarming frequency, virtually anytime a halfway mysterious narrative involves murky plot convolutions or overtly seeks to trade on behavioral manner rather than dramaturgical matter. One of the heftiest compliments I can pay Chinatown is that while I was watching it I didn’t think of any other movie. Studding a film with hommages to previous directors and duplications of classic scenes has become tiresomely trendy. What used to bespeak a filmmaker’s humble, only semi-public acknowledgment that his film grew out of and drew strength from an honorable cinematic tradition has become, more often than not, a means of grafting validation onto essentially invalid work that is not only ill-thought-out but unfelt and campily patronizing into the bargain. And on the consumer-reports end, focusing undue attention on a predecessor like The Big Sleep implies a commentator’s failure to appreciate the scope of a genre. Even in 1946 The Big Sleep was only one movie among many. Like a lot of other Howard Hawks pictures—indeed, like most good movies—it invented little but reinvented just about everything in it from moment to moment. Chinatown reinvents in that way. It provides its own highly distinctive map of a deliciously various genre, and provides the genre with one more opportunity to take its own distinctive survey of the world.
The plot of Chinatown comments on the history of Los Angeles itself. Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) stands in the way of building a dam that will enable the irrigation of the desert north of the then-existent city. He is murdered in order that the dam might be constructed and the city, rather than having the water brought to it, be built out to join the water in a megalopolitan sprawl. It must have been difficult for screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski to resist the pop-condoned temptation to write Hollywood itself into the scenario. But even in this matter they refused to risk trivializing the seriousness of a genre that Robert Altman tried to wiseacre out of existence in The Long Goodbye. There is only one offhand verbal reference to the industry: when Jake’s photograph of Mulwray hugging his alleged girlfriend makes the tabloids, his barber observes, “When you get so much publicity, let’s face it, you’re gonna get blasé. You’re practically a movie star, Jake!” And, aside from the monochrome Paramount credits in the old style, the only visual acknowledgment of Hollywood is a picture of Adolphe Menjou (a former client?) on the wall of Gittes’ office.
Chinatown leads us up the generic garden path with complete assurance. Our hipness trips us just as Gittes’ hipness trips him. Mrs. Mulwray represents a marital comedy as graceless and unremarkable as Curly’s, surely. Jake and his confreres (Nicholson, Bruce Glover, and Joe Mantell carry off some lovely business while Diane Ladd explains her problem) set about the surveillance of Mulwray with the wry condescension that is their stock-in-trade. Gittes attends a public hearing where proponents and opponents of the new dam state their cases. Mulwray gets up; he is long, grotesquely lanky, Adam’s apple a-bob and eyes like yogurt; his speech is short, petulant. He won’t build a dam and the town needs one. Gittes grins when a flock of sheep run down the aisle. The man herding them—farmer, salt of the earth—demands to know why Mulwray is denying water to livestock and crops: “Who’s paying you, Mr. Mulwray?” Mulwray makes no answer. Superior son of a bitch—keeps that cute blonde, takes graft, and—he’s a weirdo too—keeps walking dry riverbeds and solitary beaches at night. On just about every count: No. By film’s end we know that Hollis Mulwray was the closest to a civic and personal hero the movie had to offer.
Similarly with Mrs. Mulwray. The day the Mulwray affair breaks in the papers, Gittes rushes into the office bubbling over with the new joke he heard at the barbershop. Mrs. Mulwray is not amused. Besides that, Mrs. Mulwray is not the same lady who was Mrs. Mulwray a few days earlier, the one who hired Gittes. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) fully intends to sue Jake Gittes and, having announced as much, stalks regally out. Gittes scrambles to recover lost ground. “I’m not supposed to be the one who’s caught with his pants down.” He can’t find Mr. Mulwray at his office, so he confronts the Mrs. at home. She seems convinced of his sincerity almost before he has a chance to be sincere, and offers to drop the suit. It’s too quick. Something’s going on here. An hour later Hollis Mulwray turns up dead in the reservoir.
Gittes goes to work for the right Mrs. Mulwray in stages. When the police call her in to identify her husband’s body—an accidental drowning, so it seems—the newspaper story about the affair comes up and she is forced to pretend she had indeed hired a detective, to scotch a malicious rumor. Gittes backs her up and she thanks him, promising to send a check. “A check?!” he says, somewhere between a snarl and a whimper. For doing her a favor? No, to corroborate her story that she had hired him. On his own hook, Jake goes prowling in a “damp riverbed” where, somehow, another man, a drunk, managed to drown the night before, and from there to the reservoir where Mulwray’s corpse was found. A hired thug known to be working for Mulwray’s deputy commissioner jumps him, and his partner (played by director Polanski) slashes Gittes’ nose open with a knife as a warning to stop poking around there. Gittes confronts the deputy commissioner (John Hillerman) with the accusation that he, working for some really big people, had Mulwray killed. He relays the same suspicion to Mrs. Mulwray, who hires him to find out who wanted her husband dead and make it stick.
Faye Dunaway’s performance is extraordinary, and deeply reassuring to anyone with fond memories of what had begun to seem more and more like a flukey portrayal of Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde, ‘way back in 1967; in the years between, her directors seemed unable to think of much for her to do except to wear smart clothes—only her mistress role in Kazan’s quirky, misfired, sympathetic The Arrangement and her appearance in Lester’s The Three Musketeers are worth mentioning as exceptions. Her Evelyn Mulwray is incessantly surprising, compelling, troubling. She always seems to be listening for a signal beyond the range of normal hearing, in the tones of the person she’s speaking with, in a space beyond the edge of the frame, maybe somewhere within herself. She smokes a cigarette the way people smoked cigarettes in the Forties, but there are no quotation marks around the gesture. The simplest line—”Phone before you come, please”—resounds with multiple implications, contradictory motives. There’s really no watching her objectively. Hers is the dangerousness of a fine and frightened animal that happens to be a human being. In a scene typical of Polanski’s nervy, precise direction, she joins Gittes at a cocktail lounge the day after his ordeal and visibly starts when she sees his heavily bandaged nose; but she doesn’t say a thing about it, and he doesn’t either, and she just sits there carrying on an intense conversation while never forgetting about and virtually never ceasing to look at that nose; and on her face is this expression of … horror, yes, astonishment, yes, and also, subversively, a kind of hungry delight in the outrageousness of this unorthodox man and his wilfully unaccounted-for … nose.
Visiting Hollis Mulwray’s office a second time—it is in the process of becoming Russ Yellburton’s (Hillerman’s) office—Gittes becomes aware that the walls are covered by photographs of Mulwray and a man named Noah Cross, who once owned the water supply of the city of Los Angeles until Mulwray persuaded him to turn it over to the public. Cross turns out to be Evelyn Mulwray’s father. “You married your father’s business partner?” Gittes presses, and she tries to be casual about the pressing. Hollis, she says, “never forgave” Cross for forcing him to build an earlier dam that proved architecturally unsound and collapsed, causing a great disaster; it was Mulwray’s contention that the new proposed dam would be just as unsafe, hence his opposition. That “never forgave” seems a strong and violently personal way of stating the case. Jake is curious—and besides, while surveilling Mulwray to catch him with his girl, one of Jake’s operatives overheard an angry quarrel between the subject and none other than Noah Cross.
Noah Cross (John Huston) owns a country club called the Albacore, and Gittes meets him there for lunch the next day. “Mr. Gits,” Cross calls him*, and offers him some advice: “You think you know what you’re dealing with, but you don’t.” His daughter, he insists, is a deeply disturbed woman who, among other things, never understood the feelings he and her husband had for one another: “Hollis Mulwray made this city, and he made me a fortune. We were a lot closer than Evelyn realized.” (No one else in the film ever calls her Evelyn.) Gittes recognizes Cross as an old reprobate, but part of his style is to acknowledge that genially: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Gittes is hired a second time in 24 hours in connection with the Mulwray case: the girlfriend has disappeared and Cross wants her found.
Meanwhile, Jake has learned what Hollis Mulwray was in the process of learning: as a little Mexican boy on a large horse tells both men at different times, “The water comes in different parts of the river; every night it comes”: during a drought, someone is dumping portions of the city water supply. Yellburton has insisted that a little surreptitious but philanthropic irrigation is indeed going on, water being diverted to some orange growers in the North Valley who, though not really having any right to the water, need it in order to save their crop. A trip to the Hall of Records reveals that the valley is gradually being bought up by dummy investors—some of them dead men, in fact; the farmers in residence are actually defending themselves against agents of the water company who seem bent on driving them out. Gittes learns this at more physical expense: he regains consciousness on a North Valley porch, his slashed nose re-bloodied from a fight, to find Evelyn Mulwray staring at him. There is a valid explanation for her being there; the farmer whose men beat Gittes found a contract on him and phoned his employer Mrs. Mulwray (the Cross contract had not, presumably, been drawn up yet). Still…
Driving back to town, the detective and his client stop at the Mar Vista Home for the Aged, the last address of one of the deceased new owners of the valley. Halfway up the front steps they turn into the perfect nouveau rich couple, and begin to sense out the parameters of the place in that guise. In a roomful of relics reminiscent of Polanski’s dancing vampires and the frumpy coven in Rosemary’s Baby, they run down more of the new names in the Hall of Records files; “the owners of the 50-million-dollar empire,” unaware of their good fortune, go on groping nurses and sewing on an old flag—which bears the symbol of the Albacore Club. The unctuous director of the home turns steely and advises Gittes that someone wishes to see him outside: the boys from the reservoir. Jake urges Evelyn out of the scene fast, but she returns with her car to spirit him away in the breathbatingest nick of time in recent cinema history.
Sex was rarely as absent from the American cinema of yesteryear as most carelessly worldweary accounts would have it, but few of Chinatown‘s predecessors—and even fewer contemporary films of whatever genre or variety—have boasted such a deliciously well-matched couple as Jake Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, and audience interest in getting them bedded down together verges on the conspiratorial. Back at the Mulwray mansion, they engage in an “Has this ever happened to you before?” dialogue that, like the afterthought Bogart-Bacall “It depends on who’s in the saddle” routine in The Big Sleep, pretends to be about one thing—one particularly violent day in the life of a private investigator—but is really about another: the business of mutual seduction and the self-awareness of the two people going about it. Jake works his infallible ploy: takes off his bandage and asks for some peroxide. Closeup, he notices that Evelyn has a black fleck in her green eye. “It’s a flaw,” she confesses. The flaw in the iris kisses the mangled nose.
IT IS NOT out of the question (although theoretically anyone reading at this point has seen the film) that someone may be wondering why Roman Polanski’s movie is called Chinatown. The movie pulls against that enigmatic title, the most central of a series of stylistic clues strewn throughout the tantalizing spectacle. Walsh (Joe Mantell), showing Gittes his candid photos of Cross and Mulwray early in the film, reports having made out only one phrase in their argument: “apple core.” Even that is wrong; subsequent developments make it extremely likely that “albacore” is what Walsh should have heard. But—as an anti-critical English professor of mine used to say—now that we know that, what do we know? Nothing, really; except that we do get to know it, less by leaps than by adroit, or perhaps just accidental, sidesteps. Jake’s rummaging in Hollis Mulwray’s office is interrupted by the arrival of Ross Yellburton, itself signaled by an eerie flash of reflected light outside the translucent window in the office door—a sudden, vivid, perfectly natural yet chilling event that recalls the impact of two off-kilter lightbulbs glimpsed instantaneously, like the eyes of a great beast improbably lurking in the corridor of a mouldering New York hotel, when a door opens suddenly in Rosemary’s Baby. “I wonder if you’d care to wait in my office?” Yellburton invites pleasantly, and somehow it’s an icy threat, the iron fist in the velvet glove. Gittes accedes, and steps into another chamber decorated with the stuffed carcasses of big fish. Among them, comparatively small yet conspicuous, appears a painted symbol of a fish, at once modernistic and evocative of early Christian symbology. Old Noah Cross…. The image tucks itself away in the corner of the mind, waiting to be recalled in its own good time when Jake and Evelyn visit the Mar Vista and see this flag…. Apple core, albacore—Polanski (Towne?) is perfectly fair and, precisely in being fair, is also insidious: in the first scene of the film, Curly, shambling out of Jake’s office, weeping, maundering, begging off paying, makes some broken reference to the albacore he’s going to go fishing for.
Polanski’s art has a great sense of objets trouvés about it. He dredges up the bizarre for us to contemplate—an iconographically vivid lifebuoy in Knife in the Water, a potato putting out eyes and then tendrils in Repulsion, a gothic castle in Cul-de-sac, an Einstein-like philosopher-scientist with heated glass globes sucking onto his back in Dance of the Vampires, and so on—and then he just looks at it and seems to say, “There it is. You find it odd? How odd of you to do that!” In effect, he turns us into a lot of Evelyn Mulwrays, waiting for signals. The signals come, and part of us—part of Polanski—says, “A signal, yes? You call that a signal? All right then, have it your way!” In his early films this perverse exoticism came across more conveniently circumscribed; one had only to remember what movie theater one was in to remind oneself that this was, after all, an experience of something foreign. Now Polanski has merged his art with our richest species of domestic exoticism. The novels of Hammett and Chandler, the great—and only subsequently declared and named—film noir cycle of the Forties and Fifties, yielded a kind of imaginative documentary of How It Is in contemporary America. Polanski has become as American as Los Angeles.
Chinatown, then. We wait for clarification. Jake and Evelyn first appear onscreen together as Jake tells the barbershop joke to Walsh and Duffy; behind him, unbeknownst to him but seen by his operatives, Mrs. Mulwray stands in the door to the inner office; Jake tells the story, chortling as he builds stage by stage toward the comic punchline. The barber told him the joke to forestall a fistfight in his place of business; the hysteria is still there, and it builds in the audience too as we watch, savoring the comic frenzy, but also starting to get a headache from it. And the joke itself is like the snake swallowing its own tail; we arrive at our comic destination and find we’re where we started, on the outside now looking in, frustrated by the comic explosion that ought to have liberated us. “And so his wife says, `You’re screwin’ like a Chinaman!'” Chinaman—write it down.
Chinatown. Jake goes to the reservoir to talk to Hollis Mulwray and finds a dead man. Before that, he finds Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), a cop, a colleague in the old days. They worked Chinatown together, but both got out; Escobar has made Detective Lieutenant, and we already mentioned Gittes’ expensive suits and staff of operatives. They don’t talk about Chinatown much, but the way they do talk about it and the way they don’t talk about it tell us … something.
Chinatown. Noah Cross reads his line about Jake thinking he knows what he’s dealing with whereas he doesn’t, really. Jake smiles: the D.A. used to tell him that, in Chinatown.
Back in bed with the flaw in the iris, he is asked what he used to do for the DA in Chinatown and he replies sardonically, “As little as possible.” Does it bother him to talk about the past? It bothers everybody that worked in Chinatown to talk about the past. Chinatown was “bad luck. You can’t always tell what’s going on—like with you.” What was the bad luck? “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt.” There was a woman involved, then?, Mrs. Mulwray wants to know. “Of course.” “Dead?” The phone rings. The signal.
Evelyn speaks cryptically on the phone and hangs up. She is utterly changed. For a while, in the undefensive intimacy of the bed, the urgency had receded. Now it is back. Naked before Jake and us, she seems as though she were trying to shrink within her very skin. She has to leave, she is saying to him, when he mentions that he has seen her father. Instinctively she tries to cover herself with her arms. “You’ve seen—my father?!” A hand goes to her mouth, then drops again and tries consciously to push the other arm away from her breast. In a violently schizophrenic image she seems bent on concealing herself and opening herself again at the same time. “Wait for me here,” she finally says. “I need you here.”
And again the elusiveness takes hold, the definition-resisting film noir female. We hear two meanings in the instruction; Jake hears only one: he is to stay out of the way, where she knows he’ll be while she is … where, doing what? As she dresses, he sneaks outside and shatters one taillight on her roadster to make it easy to follow in the night. They drive, in separate cars. She pulls up at an unknown house, the porch light on, someone waiting inside the front door, a torn shade in one upstairs window. Jake parks nearby and eases up to a window. On a cot lies the blonde girl Hollis Mulwray was photographed with. An intense dialogue is in progress between her and Evelyn; the Mulwrays’ imperiously sinister Chinese butler has been guarding—holding?—the girl. With Jake, we hear voices but no words; with him, we see unclearly, through a drawn curtain. Mrs. Mulwray seems to be forcing drugs on the girl. Is she? Why?
Jake is waiting in the car when Evelyn gets back in. She is startled to find him there, and gropes for a workable explanation. Gittes keeps charge of himself as well as the situation. He does not even put the name in italics when he addresses the woman he was sleeping with an hour before as “Mrs. Mulwray,” but the verbal slap can be felt all the same. The girl? Yes, she is the one that was linked with Hollis, but Evelyn has been concerned about her, feels responsible, has tried to protect her from knowledge of Hollis’ death. She found out all the same, hence the drugs. And why should Mrs. Mulwray feel responsible for her husband’s lover? She puts her head down; in a hideous comic moment, she thereby sets off the horn. “She’s my sister”—a sudden inspiration? Jake seems to be back in the office with Curly the cuckold. “Take it easy. So she’s your sister, she’s your sister.” He gets out of the car. Evelyn leans after him: where is he going? He laconically assures her she needn’t worry: he isn’t going to the police. “I didn’t mean that,” she protests, as if struck again. “Good night, Mrs. Mulwray.”
There is no sleep for Gittes that night. The violence continues. The phony Mrs. Mulwray, who has subsequently supplied Jake with one good lead, is murdered. A phone call brings him to the murder house where Escobar and his partner Loach are waiting to entrap him: his phone number was written on her kitchen wall; it is they who called him up. Escobar levels some serious accusations at Gittes but is forced to let him go. Not, however, before advising him that Hollis Mulwray drowned in saltwater, and that someone deliberately planted his body at the reservoir. Gittes heads for the Mulwray mansion where a pair of other clues lurking in his and our minds add up to damning evidence: the grass has been dying around the estate fishpond because the pond contains saltwater (“Bad for the glass!” a Chinese gardener had insisted earlier—that scrupulous fairness again); and in that saltwater pool is a pair of spectacles.
The furniture at the mansion is being shrouded by the servants. Gittes races to the hideaway house to find Evelyn packing. He produces the glasses and asks if they’re her husband’s. “I suppose so.” Jake holds himself completely distant from her. He outlines a murder theory—a jealous quarrel about the girl; a struggle by the pool; the girl, a hysterical witness, shut away for safe keeping—and nonchalantly offers to recommend a good criminal lawyer. Evelyn, as they say, is taking The Fall, But a harder one than Jake imagines. He demands to know the truth about the girl—”And don’t tell me she’s your sister!” Mrs. Mulwray seems to be cracking, ready to try any feeble story: “She’s my daughter.” This time the blow Jake delivers is not verbal. “She’s my sister.” Again. “My daughter.” The blow; a helpless laugh. “My sister.” And then: “She’s my daughter—and my sister.” The snake swallows its tail.
“He raped you?” Evelyn shakes her head no; her whole body shudders no. She was 15. She went to Mexico to have the child. Hollis came to her there and cared for her. And the child was sent away. But now, after years had passed, Evelyn wanted to have her near. And Hollis, as before, was the gentlest, most accommodating man.
Jake acts quickly. Evelyn must leave, right now, with the girl. He has already phoned for Escobar. Mrs. Mulwray gets up to go after her daughter. “Oh,” she says, an afterthought, “those glasses—they’re not Hollis’s. He didn’t wear bifocals.”
The daughter appears on the stairs. As the horsey jaw of John Huston and the fine skull of Faye Dunaway seemed somehow, astonishingly, counterparts of one another, now Katherine (Belinda Palmer) appears an impossibly rarefied expression of her sister and mother’s features. There is a doomed fragility about her; the very light and texture of her face seems (did Polanski intend it?) like china. “Say hello to Mr. Gittes, Katherine.” Jake is very gentle, yet something in his tone, his look, seems to say that he knows it is too late to be gentle for any of them. Evelyn will take the girl to her Chinese servant’s home; she gives the street address—does Jake know where that is? “Sure.” Polanski cuts directly to a shot of Gittes lowering a bamboo shade between himself and the women as they drive off up the street. They are lost to him as he waits for the police lieutenant he himself called. The address, inevitably, is in Chinatown.
“THE FUTURE, MR. GITS—the future! Now where’s the girl?” The speaker is Noah Cross, whose bifocals Jake Gittes found in the saltwater pool. Jake, having eluded Escobar and arranged for his fisherman client Curly to take the Cross–Mulwray women out on his boat after a certain hour, has drawn the multimillionaire back to the scene of his crime and asked him what he hoped to gain by acquiring more millions, more power. The answer encompasses not only Los Angeles but also the obsessive impulse of Noah Cross to leave his mark—the insignia of the Albacore Club and the singular code of his own genes—to perpetuate his very self beyond time and mortality. Everyone doubles back on himself in Chinatown: Hollis Mulwray, who, Cross recalls fondly, was himself obsessed with tide pools—”That’s where life begins”—and who found his death in his private facsimile of one; Mulwray and Gittes, both ruefully recalling a fatal error in the past, both dreading its recurrence; Evelyn Mulwray herself, who admitted she wasn’t raped by her father, and who—Jake made a point of it—married his business partner, almost his other, socially conscious half; Evelyn who, as much as Jake, may have helped destroy a woman—an unthinkably intimate extension of herself—while doing her damnedest to keep her safe. Chinatown is another Cul-de-sac, and it ends as that earlier masterpiece began, with a car drifting eerily under we’re-not-sure-what power, freighted with a bloody cargo.
“I DON’T BLAME MYSELF.” Still Noah Cross talking, still back at the surrogate tide pool. He is talking about a lot of things: murdering his friend Hollis, making love to his daughter Evelyn. “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they’re capable of anything.” Huston’s delivery of the line is superbly ambiguous; there’s almost a sense of relish in that “anything.” When everyone meets in Chinatown at last—the real Chinatown as well as the figurative country of guilty legend which, in one way or another, the best films noirs describe—he speaks a variant of the line to Evelyn. It’s almost as though he were impatient with a little girl who just wouldn’t understand adult imperatives: “You’ve never forgiven me all these years”—as though rebuking her failure of vision. I think Roman Polanski is speaking partly through Noah Cross: evil exists; corruption is in the nature of things. Accept it and you survive, after a fashion; the ending of Rosemary’s Baby, perhaps that of Dance of the Vampires, and certainty his very perverse interpretations of Ross and Donalbain in Macbeth all speak to that end. Try to deny your own flaws and you end up at an intersection not knowing which way to turn (Knife in the Water) or receding into your own murderous eye in a family portrait (Repulsion) or sitting on a rock at high tide calling for a vanished dream of an assuredly corrupt reality (Cul-de-sac). Evelyn Mulwray tries to destroy her father, but in her most desperate frenzy she cannot bring herself to shoot true; a moment later she herself is destroyed, her vulnerable beauty—almost hurtful to look upon in certain scenes—exploded as if from within. Noah’s pawing, pleading overtures to her (John Huston’s “Pleeease! Pleeease!” will haunt your dreams) combine rapaciousness and infantile wheedling inextricably; and who is to say that the titanic embrace which engulfs his daughter-granddaughter and shields her eyes from the horror on the car floor is marked any the less by compassion than by triumph?
On the other hand, perhaps, is Jake Gittes, who moments before the near-cosmic mayhem breaks out, in a conjunction of forces directly and indirectly contrived by the detective himself, is slipping into the old song-and-dance, delighted to be arrested by friend Escobar if it takes him out of the hands of Cross’s goons. We have remarked the near-symmetry of his professional conduct with Curly and with Evelyn Mulwray in a night when she needed him, not his patter, when practiced-sounding falsehoods proved to be the truth, but the truth was beyond his detection. Polanski indicts Jake, and indicts us too. Both audiences I saw Chinatown with laughed in a superior way as Evelyn seemed caught in her pathetically contradictory lies—”My sister … my daughter”—and as Lou Escobar began stiffly firing his pistol into the air, crying after the runaway car to halt. And both audiences audibly gasped when Evelyn explained how the contradictory could be terribly, mutually true; and they gasped, and then groaned in guilty protest, to see the results when Escobar’s partner did not fire into the air or shoot for the tires. It can’t be true—but it’s true. It can’t happen—but it happens. “As little as possible,” Jake murmurs almost inaudibly, echoing what he used to do in Chinatown and had done for Evelyn Mulwray. Lou Escobar, who has been in Chinatown too, and who moreover has to wrestle with the survivalist necessity of ignoring the known guilt of a powerful man like Noah Cross, removes the cuffs he had put on Jake and shoves him away, insisting again and again: “I’m doing you a favor!”—though he does it for them both. Has Jake learned how to hurt after all, somewhere besides his cut nose? Or will the numb shock in his face and limbs persist beyond the end of the film as he takes refuge in Walsh’s formula: “Forget it, Jake…it’s Chinatown”?
Richard T. Jameson
* Huston’s reading is such that one is led to speculate on the origin of that suggestive mispronunciation: Did the script specify it? Polanski’s direction? Huston’s own instincts? Or did it just come out with the rest of that marmalade-molasses-and-honey elocution and ring the right bell?
© 1974 Richard T. Jameson
Tags: Chinatown, Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, Movietone News 33, Roman Polanski, The Big Sleep
Screenwriter Robert Towne's status as a Hollywood sage was achieved largely through his reputation as a script doctor and consultant. But a trio of breakthrough, credited scripts —written specifically for two actor friends — remain his most tangible achievement. These were Shampoo (1975) for Warren Beatty, and, for Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown.
Chinatown, Towne's finest two hours (for which he won the film's only Oscar, Best Original Screenplay, in a year dominated by The Godfather Part II), is an LA story of the 1930s, a political conspiracy noir thriller and a complex, hard-boiled detective mystery in the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett line. A sophisticated film that covered everyone involved in glory, including the audiences who responded appreciatively to the dense, demanding and dark story line. Private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes ("Discreet Investigations") is more dapper with his centre parting and snappy suits than Chandler's Phillip Marlowe or Hammett's Sam Spade. He's also more humorous, physical and prosperous (with associates Duffy and Walsh as well as the obligatory good secretary). At the same time he is more alienated. Jake is a former cop haunted by the veiled past which climaxed in an unspecified crisis when he worked LA's Chinatown. Elusive references to the district dot the film, but the most that is drawn from Jake on the subject is that, "I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt." Thus the enigmatic title - only in the film's final five minutes do the principal characters in a fateful convergence, get to Chinatown - stands for failure, bad luck, and being out of your depth in something you don't understand.
Jake is hired by a dolled-up broad (Diane Ladd) to get the goods on her allegedly philandering husband, Hollis Mulwray, prominent chief engineer for the city's water and power department. He gets Page One scandal snaps of Mulwray and a young girl in their "love nest", but the backslapping comes to an abrupt halt when the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray appears in his office. Jake persists in investigating further as intimidation and corpses mount, because he doesn't like being made a fool of, and he doesn't like duplicity. ("I make an honest living," he says proudly.) Mulwray and a homeless man living in a storm drain are found drowned in the middle of a drought, Jake sees water secretly diverted and discovers a property scam in which nursing home residents and dead men are the nominal owners of a new empire.
Towne was a native Los Angelino and informed his script with a love for the town and a nostalgia for its coming-of-age, a time when the desert city grew in order to come to where the water was. And water is everywhere throughout the film, from the ocean where tons of it are being dumped to the reservoirs Jake circuits, the garden pond that holds a vital clue and the tap dripping in a murdered woman's kitchen. It is the key to great power and wealth, the tool of insatiable greed and ambition.
It was Roman Polanski's genius, however, that made the film not merely an intelligent and intricate narrative but a great, disturbing vision. Polanski, with his tragically intimate experience of evil, toughened the script up, most crucially in changing Towne's happy-ish ending (in which Evelyn and Katherine got away) to the bitter but unforgettable conclusion which leaves Jake pole-axed, led away in shock by his partners (urging "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown").
John Huston's bluff tycoon not only thinks he can get away with anything — he can. It was also Polanski who observed with a vividly humane perception those collected oddballs, miscreants and victims: the coroner with a hacking cough; the distressed farmers; the snotty little clerk at the Hall of Records; the burly client (Burt Young) who weeps at evidence of his wife's infidelity, blacks her eye and settles back into slobbish domesticity; the weaselly little spiv ("Where'd you get the midget?", played, of course, by Polanski himself) who slits Jake's nose.
That it is very firmly "A Roman Polanski Film" as billed was completely verified by the belated and nigh unfathomable 1990 sequel The Two Jakes, scripted by Towne and directed by Nicholson revisiting his Gittes in 1948 (it, too, is well-acted, complicated and polished-looking, but sadly lacking in the unifying magic). Faye Dunaway, whose neurasthenic quality has never been exploited to better advantage than by Polanski (who gave her — and got — a rough time in the process) is beautifully nuanced as the f cool, elegant,
Marcel-waved Evelyn whose birthmark, "a flaw in the iris" represents the heart of darkness in the film. She is presented as a high-class femme fatale and indeed her suspect motives enhance the menace and jeopardy until both her anxiousness and her glowing seduction scene are suddenly cast in a different light by the most shocking of the revelations. It is still Nicholson's show, though — his fatalistic glamour and presence as the cynical, wisecracking, impulsively decent snoop, dented not a bit by the ignominy of sporting a substantial bandage over his nose for much of the film.
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Detective thriller with a social agenda and an emotionally ripping finale. An absolute classic.