Chinatown: A Pessimist’s Vision of the World


In Chinatown, Polanski takes a stance against the American Dream by exploring the futility of an individual’s efforts when faced with obstacles far beyond oneself. He cleverly uses dialogue, imagery and motifs to portray “Chinatown” as a place occupied with deception and corruption where the powerful prevail. In contrast to this we have J.J Gittes, a private detective whose idealistic struggle for justice is set on a path to face the bleak reality of Polanski’s vision.

J.J Gittes has all the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective and more. The movie is shot from his point of view and follows the basic outline of a Greek tragedy. Even though the movie is from his POV, it is not his subjective perspective that we are seeing but just what he sees. Due to the intentional emphasis on misunderstanding in the movie, the audience ends up knowing much more about how the pieces fit together than Jake himself. Like any hard-boiled detective, he is a loner, he can be crass, he does not refrain from physical violence or getting his hands dirty, and he has a regretful past. His occupation means everything to him and he refuses to let go of the mystery that falls his way despite Mrs. Mulwray offering to have the case against him removed in the beginning of the movie. He has to follow the case because he was played for a fool. Gittes wishes to bring the bad guys to justice and usually acts first and thinks later as displayed by his actions. Despite all this, he has a comic side to him, he is well groomed and sophisticated, and his faith in humanity is still intact. These qualities that would set him apart from a traditional cynical “hard–boiled detective” displays his naiveté and set him up to be ultimately destroyed by the reality that this world portrays.

Outer appearances in the movie often mislead and things are never what they would initially seem to be. The opening scene where Jake is showing some pictures to a client begins with a close-up and gradually pulls back the camera to reveal pictures of sex-scenes. We figure out that these images are proof displaying the infidelity of the client’s wife but this also introduces the theme of misunderstanding and having things out of context. Starting the movie in this disorienting manner creates mystery and confusion and the gradual pull back works to slowly provide the context and the answer. Polanski gradually displays the ugliness of the world with the progression of the mystery. The scenes in the beginning of the movie display L.A as bright, and open and eventually the setting becomes dark and glum with a majority of the latter scenes being set in the night or indoors with the blinds drawn. Even Jake’s charming physical appearance gets tarnished when he gets his nose sliced in a scene by Roman Polanski himself. The first scene shows Jake being kind and forgiving to Curly and he even refuses to take up the divorce case brought to him by the fake Mrs. Mulwray. But after finding out that her husband was a man of means, he decides to overcharge her. He loses his temper when he is accused at the barbershop for cashing in on cheap scandals and keeps repeating that he makes an honest living by helping people out that are in desperate situations. Despite his inflated sense of self-worth, Jake is a cheap private investigator that has made money tackling petty domestic cases. He can be seen taking in the limelight by letting reporters know how his name is spelt when they approach him. It is also later discovered that Evelyn, the beautifully composed wife of Hollis Mulwray has a flawed eye.

Eyes are a strong recurring symbol in the movie that also support how everything in Chinatown is not as it seems. Gittes often ends up coming across as shortsighted whereas Noah Cross is the man with the big visions. It’s the lens from a pair of glasses in the pool of Evelyn Mulwray that lead him to Noah Cross. Again, Noah is the one with glasses that sees the duality of the events before him. Evelyn gets shot in the eye eventually while Noah Cross covers Katherine’s eyes foreshadowing how the innocent Katherine faces a manipulated life similar to that of her mother. The gardener at the Mulwray residence is heard saying, “it’s bad for the glass” when referring to the pool when he actually meant that it is bad for the grass and if Jake had picked that up then the investigation would have gone smoother. This led Jake to initially ignore what finding salt water in Hollis’s lungs meant. Gitte’s shortsightedness is clear again near the end when he decides to put his faith in the cops without any results. The corruption that that the movie tends to attribute to Chinatown had overtaken whole city without him realizing.

There are also many instances in the movie where the dialogue foreshadows the ill fate that is destined to befall our detective and provide an insight into the type of place that Chinatown is. The first occurs when Jake initially refuses to try and take up the divorce case brought to him by the fake Mrs. Mulwray. He tells her, “You’re better off not knowing”; words of advice that are often aimed at him throughout the movie. When Jake talks about his past with Evelyn, he says, “you can’t always tell what’s going on in Chinatown” and that the D.A’s advice in Chinatown was to do as little as possible. True to these words, in the end as Escobar is handcuffing Jake in Chinatown, Jake says to him, “ Lou, you don’t know what’s going on.” and after his failed attempt to get his story straight with the cops, he mumbles the lesson he failed to learn from the DA in Chinatown: “As little as possible”. Chinatown is set up as a place where people cannot tell what is going on and the only possible solution seems to be is to ignore the on goings.

Deception is connected with almost all things that are to do with Chinatown. Jake is heard telling a joke about china-ness, which was about deception. The joke is summarized as a man bored of his wife, screws his wife and takes intervals doing what pleases him to come back to screw his wife again. Putting this joke in the movie also shows Jake’s and everyone’s ignorance of how the corrupt atmosphere that represents Chinatown had taken over the entire city. Mrs. Mulwray’s Chinese help turns out to be the secret custodians of her daughter. There is the powerful statement at the end where Jake’s associate tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”. It means that it’s the way things are and one person or Jake in this instance cannot challenge the system. It’s a dark world where fighting for justice is futile. Forgetting about it or ignoring is what most people do and is the only solution. The irony is that Jake never forgot about the previous experience and failing this one would only set him deeper into despair and apathy. Chinatown is the world where powerful people can get away abusing their power while the weak suffer. All the racially insensitive jokes about Chinatown show the atmosphere in L.A as was in the 30’s where the “Orientals” were segregated from the rest because of their language and culture that no one else understood. The cops that were stationed in Chinatown faced this lack of understanding and it applied to multilayered mystery as well, which was enveloped in shadows and hard to comprehend.

Jake is initially deceived into taking up the case by the fake Evelyn and then deceived multiple times by the real Evelyn Mulwray. First, she calls the mysterious woman (Katherine) her sister and then her daughter and despite the truth of the incestuous relationship being right in front of him, he fails to see it. He even falls in love with her. Furthermore, he kept trying to fit the clues and truths into pre-determined clichéd categories. He assumes Mr. Mulwray’s involvement with Katherine to be adultery, assumes Hollis Mulwray’s murder to be done out of jealousy by his wife and takes Katherine to be a kidnapped murder witness despite all the evidence pointing towards covering up the water scandal. He also assumes Cross’s motives to be money when it was all about power. Noah Cross tells him at one point, “ You may think you know what you’re dealing with here, but believe me, you don’t”. Jake struggles to find how truth fits together: the reason behind his setup; what is the deal with the water supply; what is the relationship between Noah Cross, Mrs. Mulwray and her connection to Katherine; why Mrs. Mulwray was murdered. His personal struggle follows him from his past in Chinatown and comes down to his inability to accept as to why things go wrong despite all his efforts to correct them. His naiveté and persistence is his hubris and leads him to misunderstand a lot of the clues placed in front of him. Jake misinterprets the clues throughout the movie due to their misleading nature. The photographs Jake takes of Hollis and the girl in the boat and at the apartment are misleading. The same can be said for the series of photographs Walsh takes of Hollis and Cross arguing. Their argument, which the photographs capture, is the reason that Noah murdered Hollis.The photographs end up misleading everyone from Jake to Lou Escobar. All signs point towards bliss lying in the quality of being ignorant which unfortunately, our detective is not.

We know in retrospect what the argument between Hollis and Cross was about. It was about the Albacore Club; Cross’ plot to build the dam and buy up the valley land through the use of his Albacore Club as part of his scheme to not only get rich but also to control the future of Los Angeles. Curly mentions the word Albacore as he is leaving Jake’s office in the beginning of the movie and this introduces a key symbol in the movie. Curly says he gets less money for catching skipjack that he does for albacore. Its symbolic meaning becomes clear much later. When Walsh reports to Jake about his photographs, he mentions that the only word that we could make out was; “apple-core”. There was an Albacore flag in Hollis’s office at department of water and power, one at the meeting with Noah Cross and it is shown multiple times at the rest home that Jake visits as it was sponsored by the albacore club. Later in the movie, Evelyn explains to Jake that her father owns the albacore club. By this time it has become clear beyond a doubt that Chinatown is the place of shadows, illusions and lies and the entire truth will never reveal itself in this place.

The movie shatters all concepts of the American Dream; one cannot make it in this world through one’s efforts alone. The movie is dark and a lot can be attributed to Polanski’s wife being a victim of Manson crimes before the movie as the original screenplay by Robert Towne involved Gittes escaping to Mexico with Evelyn. Noah can be seen telling Gittes in relation to 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; where humanity is flawed and corrupted and there is no escape from this darkness. Evelyn dies and Noah Cross ends up Katherine who would end up having a fate similar to Evelyn. Another important scene was when Jake and Evelyn have a conversation after their sex scene. He says, “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure she was hurt.” when referring to his past in Chinatown. This prepared the audience to better grasp the gravity of the situation that befell him. The bandage on his nose stays on throughout the movie exhibiting that the past is something that Jake was unable to shake off. Jake is not a savior in any sense, he failed before and his efforts end up leading to the same conclusion again. This emphasis on the injury is a reminder of the helplessness of the common man when fighting forces far beyond him. It can be said that because Evelyn decided to trust Jake, it eventually led to her death. His previous experience had made him cynical and apathetic and now that he is faced with a chance at redemption, history seemed bound to repeat itself. His fate was clearly cut out. Idealism cannot survive in Polanski’s vision of this world and if one does not see it then Chinatown will make sure that there is no escape. L.A, the City of Angels, the dream town is exposed for the nightmare it can be.

Works Cited

Faison, Stephen E. Existentialism, Film Noir, and Hard-boiled Fiction. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2008. Print.

“Forget It, Jake, It’s Chinatown” – Parallax View.” Parallax View. Web. 04 May 2014

Gilmore, Richard. “The Dark Sublimity of Chinatown.” Comp. Mark T. Conard. The Philosophy of Neo-noir. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2007. 119-34. Print.

Gimel, Mary Kay. “An American Tragedy: Chinatown.” Classical Myth & Culture in the Cinema. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 148-71. Print.

Mackin, Tony.” Chinatown: As Much as Possible : Film Review : By Tony Macklin at Web. 08 May 2014.

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  1. Tomlinson

    When I saw it for the first time I thought it was okay. I think one thing that may have hindered my viewing was getting lost in that complicated storyline. But I kept watching it once every couple years (maybe rewatching is the key), and every time I watch it, the more I understand the story, and the more I’m able to appreciate the subtleties. Its story has also become more prevalent as in the last few years the concern over corporate takeover and wealth inequality have entered the public mindset more than ever, making Noah Cross’ greed more evil and Gittes’ failed attempts to right his wrongs more tragic. I watched it most recently two months ago and everything felt crisp, as though I were watching it for the first time. The cinematography is quietly perfect, the score non-intrusive, the script is wise enough to expand the tropes of film noir without feeling like a bad throwback to those movies, the performances amazing (especially Jack Nicholson; the look on his face and his delivery of “As little as possible” just crushes me. He’s better known for his more scenery-chewing performances but his subtle work here ranks among his greatest), and perhaps most importantly, its avoidance of a happy ending. This was something Polanski had to fight the screenwriter and producer for, and was a sentiment likely born out of his grief over the death of Sharon Tate, but the refusal to allow Evelyn her daughter and Gittes his redemption in favor of an already rich and greedy man only getting his hands on more would be a cruel joke on the audience if it weren’t so real to life and heartbreaking.

    • Yes! On repeat viewings it has so much to revisit and experience and FEEL again and again. It’s just the fact that it holds up and is unique and is a beautifully crafted film.

    • Kevin Kryah

      If you want to see Polanski’s grief over Sharon Tate really manifest itself then you should check out his filming of Macbeth. Really grim stuff.

  2. KaBlock

    I just watched Chinatown for the first time in 15 years. Seeing it as a child I was confused and sometimes bored. Now, seeing it with fresh eyes as an adult, it is a cinematic masterpiece. Partly due to casting, partly due to the conscience choice to make a film that inverts the typical ‘hero makes great decisions and saves the day and the girl film’, and partly due to its critique on American politics. But really, the character of Jake is what I love about the film. He’s not a symbol, he’s a real person that you empathize with. If you feel for Jake, you love this movie. If you can’t get into his shoes, then the film fails.

  3. Singer John

    I think it is one of the few nearly perfect screenplays I’ve ever read. The version captured on film is perfect – absolutely flawless. Some scenes in my copy of Robert Towne’s original screenplay didn’t make it into the final film (e.g., a confrontation between a client’s angry wife and J.J. Gittes in the Brown Derby; a discussion between Gittes and the pilot of a sea plane flying to Santa Catalina Island, etc.). The reason why the screenplay translated so brilliantly to film is partly due to Towne, but also partly due to Roman Polanski’s ability to cut out the few scenes in the original screenplay that didn’t work.

    • QuarkExpress

      I must admit it is a clever and unusual script because it plays on many levels. Film noir, political thriller, family drama with elements of greek tragedy at the ending. But i don’t think it is a perfect script because it leaves many things to the audience imagination.It should be more exmplanatory on some plot elements. Also i can’t understand some of the main characters reactions and acts.That’s why i think Chinatown is a great movie but not a masterpiece.

      • No offense, but some of the most influential people in screenwriting that actually make movies and television shows deem Chinatown as maybe the most perfect screenplay that has ever been written. You have to actually be more specific than just saying “leaving up to the viewer’s imagination” or not understanding the reactions or acts of main characters. You need to watch the film at least 10 times to get a better comprehension. And yes. Chinatown is the greatest screenplay in American film history.

  4. Nga Ely

    The film is a deconstruction of the noir genre but also of American myths like those of the lone hero, rugged individualism, and the truth behind the construction of the country. It shows how the creation of the self-declared greatest democracy on earth was driven by the wealth and power of the elite with the aim of generating more wealth and power for the elite, all the time posing as a pluralised democracy.

    It takes the notion of American self-confidence and projects it onto a seemingly competent hero-figure only to show how misplaced and naive that self-confidence is and how incompetent and impotent a hero can turn out to be when he is taken away from a fantasy setting and confronted with the cold, hard, unforgiving light of day. There are numerous references in the film to distorted vision, from the flaw in Evelyn’s eye to the crushed glasses Jake finds in the salt water pond. The character of Gittes, the PI who is paid to look, to watch, to see things, and yet who is blind to his own shortcomings, blind to the consequences of his actions and ultimately blind to what is really going on until it is too late, is a representation of how America is encouraged to see itself, and what remains hidden from itself as a result of that skewed perspective, that distorted vision. Cross tells Gittes “you may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t”. If Gittes was brighter and less complacent he might have taken heed at the words of the monster sitting across from him, the untouchable one-man conglomerate, but his American-Hero syndrome, his belief in truth and justice and Hollywood endings, prevents him from doing so. The extent of Cross’s ambition and the scale of his monstrousness is apparent only in retrospect, but is revealed in part from time to time. When Gittes asks Cross why he is doing what he is doing, what more he could possibly buy that he cannot already afford, his reply is chilling “The future, Mr Gittes, the future.” That is what we are dealing with that we never imagined we would be dealing with.

    It examines the psychology of a would-be hero, how motivations, like those of Gittes, are not necessarily driven by altruism but also by the promise of personal redemption, an almost selfish need to make amends to himself for something that happened to him previously and how that outlook, far from allowing him to move on, is exposed as another misjudgement leading to more catastrophe for both him and the other people involved. It deals with the idea that you cannot escape your past and how people can become stuck, psychologically, in their previous mistakes just as Gittes is metaphorically stuck in Chinatown, but also with the idea that despite this so many people don’t learn from their past mistakes, become complacent about them and doom themselves to repeat them. The fact that the film is set in America’s past helps to emphasise this and give it broader meaning. The mistakes of the past and the fallout from the psychological damage they inflict stays with you into the future.

    Beyond this it is the sad, haunting story of childhoods destroyed, of flawed individuals struggling against uncontrollable circumstances, of the unconquerable, crushing weight of the machinery of capitalism, and yet it is told with a wit and watchability that are hard to match. The pacing is masterful, the score unforgettable, Nicholson and Dunaway are perfection, the era recreated painstakingly, the mood beautifully sombre, it contains one of the all time great movie villains portrayed by one of the great figures of twentieth century Hollywood and has amongst the finest and most meaningful final lines of any American movie.

    For me at least this is probably about as close to perfection as a film can possibly get.

  5. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    Possibly my favorite film on film noir. I enjoyed your discussion and analysis on “eyes.” I never realized how Jake missed a few details that could have been resolved quicker and smoother had he been paying close attention. I once read that Faye Dunaway wanted the bullet to come out of her eye, alluding to the play of Oedipus Rex. Noah Cross is a villain you love to hate!

  6. Sunni Ago

    I found this read a bit dry, but with that in mind it does make the movie sound a bit appealing as it is not to often I’ve seen characters in the genre described as such.

  7. The only Polanski film I’ve seen so far is Rosemary’s Baby. I am interested in watching Chinatown to see what it’s like.

  8. For me, this movie can be summed up pretty neatly by what you’ve written here: “All signs point towards bliss lying in the quality of being ignorant”. The tragedy and irony of moving further away from the truth the harder you look for it.

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