Blog Directory CineVerse: Don't forget it Jake: It's "Chinatown"

Don't forget it Jake: It's "Chinatown"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unraveling "Chinatown’s" magnificent mysteries—37 years later

by Erik J. Martin

(This is part 1 of a 2-part article on the neo noir classic “Chinatown.” Part 2 will post next week.)

“Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown,” says Lieutenant Escobar to private eye Jake Gittes. But while Gittes may be able to put it behind him, “Chinatown” can’t be so easily forgotten by its audience—even 35 years later.

After watching Roman Polanski’s brooding psychological murder mystery--a universally recognized cinematic masterpiece from 1974--one cannot overlook the overt resemblance it bears in both style and structure to film noir cinema of the forties and fifties.

“Film noir”, a term invented by French critics to classify a type of movie within a period of post-war American cinema, typifies a pessimistic, highly stylized brand of films that incorporate themes such as inescapable fates and emasculating females, and employs shadowy compositions and urbanized settings to frame its bleak images. It personified the hard-boiled detective story, the murder mystery, the psychological crime drama, and the thriller. The era began, arguably, in 1944 with a sudden plethora of such features, like “Double Indemnity”, “To Have and Have Not”, and “Woman in the Window”, and supposedly reached its golden age denouement in 1959 with the seething “Touch of Evil.”

Over a decade passed before Hollywood seemed to return to the thematic and formalistic characteristics quintessential of the discarded noir tradition, at least evident in a few prominent films. “Neo noir” pictures like “Klute”, “Dirty Harry”, (both 1971) and “The Godfather” (1972) brought back the look and feel of noir with their negative world views and explosive themes of corruption, inherent urban violence and dangerous sexuality.

By the mid-seventies, the nation was gripped by gloom, spurred on by political disillusionment (Watergate, Nixon’s resignation) and problems abroad (OPEC manipulation, the bitterness of the Vietnam War). In the midst of this depression came “Chinatown”, a film which seemed to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of 1974 America. It was, as critics affirm, the product of an ingenious blend of social commentary in the writing by Robert Towne, a visual tour de force in technique and organization by director Polanski, and an array of intense, intriguing performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and their supporting cast.

Many film scholars argue that film noir rigidly encompasses the period between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, and that its kind has long since died out as a form of film-making, let alone a movement. Others insist that the noir tradition has resurfaced in a number of movies (like in the seventies films aforementioned), and is, even now, alive and well.

“Chinatown” is set in 1937 Los Angeles, and concerns the investigation into political corruption and murder involving the water supply of the city, as snooped out by detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson). A specialist in exposing the sexual infidelities of spouses for clients, Gittes is hired by a woman who passes herself off as Mrs. Mulwray, asking him to spy on her husband’s affair with a young girl. He snaps photos of them together, and is shocked to see them published in a scandalous article only days after submitting them to his client. Soon afterward, Mr. Mulwray’s dead body is found washed up in a distant reservoir outside of L.A., and the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) pops up and threatens to sue Gittes for defamation. Gittes dissuades her, and probes into her husband’s past. He discovers that Mulwray had recently blocked the construction of a dam that would’ve increased L.A.’s water supply, a dam that would have nourished the vast agricultural properties of Mulwray’s rich ex-partner, Noah Cross (John Huston)--Evelyn’s father.

A love affair develops between Gittes and Evelyn, and she implores him to search for her husband’s killer. In his sleuthing he stumbles upon the dead body of the fake Mrs. Mulwray, and police suspect him to be involved. He peeks in on Evelyn arguing with her husband’s mistress, and later learns that land is being bought by someone using the names of poor retired elderly people. He is caught and beaten by a band of gangsters who slit his nostril, warning him to end his snooping around.

Gittes then pays a visit to Cross, and later learns that he is behind the murders and that the young Mulwray mistress is really the child of Noah and Evelyn--the product of an incestuous rape. He promises to help Evelyn and the girl, Kathryn, escape from their father (who is searching for the hidden Kathryn) to Mexico. They are caught, however, in Chinatown by Cross and the unsuspecting police, who arrest Gittes. As Evelyn tries to flee, police shoot and kill her, as Gittes watches helplessly.

“Chinatown”, as a story, is revered by many critics to be among the finest screenplays (if not the best) ever created. They regard it as Towne’s definitive statement, his brilliant apocalyptic vision of a counter-myth to modern capitalist society, with Noah Cross seen as a destructive variation on the story of America’s founding fathers.1 It is composed in the same formulaic private-eye style of Raymond Chandler, with Gittes constructed as a contemporary, more realistic Phillip Marlowe--a romanticized closet knight-in-shining-armor, who managed to occasionally beat the odds and make a difference. Towne, however, kept the pessimism of the detective genre intact, and enhanced it further with a layered, intricate social critique and a smooth pacing of plot that offered one revelation after another with clean, perfect precision.1 According to critic John Cawelti, “Chinatown deliberately evokes the basic characteristics of a traditional genre in order to bring its audience to see the genre as an embodiment of an inadequate and destructive myth," according to Polanski biographer Virginia Wexman.

The film, in fact, contradicts the detective genre with the clash of Gittes’ heroic self-determination (the traditional) and the self-conscious analysis of the formula (in the plot and images) that sees Gittes’ control over his world as an illusion.

He constructs explanations based on unreliable, limited information he has gathered, and consequently worsens situations when he trusts his distorted reality (ie, in trying to help Evelyn, he leads her father directly to her).3 With this victory of corruption (Cross) and the vulnerability of the flawed protagonist as climaxing themes, we see an ideological updating of the noir thesis of fate. By unraveling the mystery, Gittes has allowed evil to triumph: Evelyn is killed and Cross gets away with the murders as well as the custody of his daughter. There are only the comforting words of a friend as consolation--”Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Indeed, the place itself exemplifies his guilt, in that he had years ago been told by a police friend to do as “little as possible” there, after managing to get another mysterious woman “hurt” there (we aren’t told who or how). Chinatown becomes a world in which the individual becomes helpless against the intriguing mysteries surrounding him, and where moral degeneration and evil abounds to defy the imagination. Fate comes full-circle when Gittes finds himself back in Chinatown, despite his efforts, to repeat his earlier mistake. We see premonitions of this foreboding destiny in the recurrent Chinese motifs (Chinese workers at the Mulwray house, occasional oriental music, the breaking of an Oriental vase, etc.) and the sprouting relationship between he and Evelyn.3 The audience’s omniscience of this evil, especially in subsequent screenings, sees the issue here not as good vs. bad, but as the prominence of evil, thereby eliciting our pity of this Oedipal-like tragedy where Gittes himself brings about the final catastrophe and his own fate. How more ‘noir’-ishly bleak, one asks, can it get?

A steady, contradictory dualism runs through the text, what William Galperin calls a “bifocal vision” of intermittent opposites. Evelyn is both a sister and a daughter to Kathryn. Lt. Escobar has a ‘summer cold.’ Water is abundant, yet there is a drought, and Cross’s justification for his manipulation of the water is explained to be “for the future”, which he won’t live to enjoy anyway. Gittes is an investigator, yet he is blind to the ‘real picture’: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” Cross tells him. “But believe me you don’t.”

Which leads us to the role of Gittes himself, and the extent to which he personifies the voyeuristic qualities that are so much a standard of typical noir. We’ll explore these and other themes in part two of this article, continued next week.

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