[Note: Given that it’s over 40 years old, and well-known, I’m including plot spoilers in this post, so please take this note as fair warning.]
‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown’ is the famous line that gave a name to Robert Towne’s original screenplay, and thus to Roman Polanski’s neo-noir. It’s the last line of dialogue in the film, uttered by an employee of private investigator J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson, rarely better), after the pair have witnessed the horrific (and tragic) death of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), a key figure in an expanding investigation by Gittes, as well as the woman he has fallen in love with. During the film it transpires that Gittes was involved in an earlier case in which a woman was murdered in Chinatown, which lends significance both to the phrase and the setting for Evelyn’s death. The line has been interpreted in a number of ways over the years, and it’s most commonly seen as encouragement to Gittes, a suggestion that he couldn’t have influenced the outcome for the better and should simply try to move on as soon as possible, like he did last time. Yet it’s also advice suggesting the PI should walk away from the case at this point for another reason: his investigation has led him to come up against people with so much money and power that they are, eseentially, untouchable; he is out of his depth, in territory he will not be able to negotiate safely.
Of course the film itself is barely concerned with the geography of Chinatown, or Los Angeles’ Chinese population, and the area simply represents a perennial state of confusion and uncertainty. According to a Hungarian-born vice cop Towne knew, police officers found that the solving of criminal cases in the district was problematic because of the various dialects and the behaviour of different gangs, as well as widespread corruption. (Chinese people are also used as a recurring motif to suggest that Gittes has never recovered from the earlier, unseen death—witness his telling of a bawdy, racist joke, for example, unknowingly delivered while Evelyn is standing behind him.) Though set in the late-1930s, Towne’s award-winning screenplay – often confusing, with a number of twists – was inspired by the California Water Wars of the early 20th Century, during which water rights were hotly disputed and claims were made by farmers of Owens Valley that they had been swindled out of their land, through which the Owens River was eventually diverted toward the city. Large parts of the film are therefore set outside of the city, at reservoirs, dry riverbeds, coastal spots and the valleys to the north. (Though water flows suddenly and powerfully in Chinatown, I struggle to think of any film set in a densely-populated area that’s as arid as this one.) The action also moves between mansions, country clubs and retirement homes, all of which are on the outskirts of LA; Gittes only returns to a couple of key locations, but corruption and confusion seems to permeate every single one.
Chinatown starts with a simple request from a woman posing as Evelyn (played by Diane Ladd), who asks Gittes to tail her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), who she believes is cheating with another woman. This kind of thing, we learn, is Gittes’ bread and butter, but it quickly evolves into a problematic mix of double-crossing, murder, corruption, sabotage, extortion, fraud and historic sexual abuse. We stay with the main character – Nicholson is in every single scene of the movie, and each location seems to add more complication to the case that Gittes is investigating – and only see things from his perspective; so, when he is knocked unconscious by a group of farmers who believe he is on their land to sabotage their water supply, the screen fades to black before fading back in when our hero regains consciousness. The point is you’re supposed to share in the main character’s confusion: the true extent of the crimes in this film is never made clear, and is still expanding at the end, when Gittes is told to let it go. In that sense Chinatown takes its cue from the novels of Dalshiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, whose main characters are routinely fed details by their creators as they stumble their way through their own thickening plots. Just about every male neo-noir protagonist in cinema must seemingly work through the same fog: see The Long Goodbye, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Inherent Vice, Brick and many more. (The original screenplay of Chinatown actually included a narration by Gittes, but it was cut by Polanski, who knew that the audience would identify more with the character if they shared his confusion.)
Polanski and producer Robert Evans had worked together before, on 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but their relationship was put to the test during the making of Chinatown. Evans was (legitimately) worried that Towne’s screenplay would be too complicated for mainstream cinema audiences to follow, and that it offered too downbeat a message, but Polanski – who found out about the script through Towne’s friend Nicholson – loved it, and was persuaded to return to the USA following his convalescence in Europe; it would be the director’s first Hollywood film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child. Evans was also instrumental in persuading Polanski to return, correctly surmising that the filmmaker would present a cold, cynical take on Los Angeles. And he did: here it’s a city in which (unseen) decisions by those who wield power spell the end for innocent people, and there’s no hope for the good guy. Our hero here repeatedly makes mistakes, but he’s not the only one; several characters – the vaguely noble ones, such as Mr Mulwray, Ida Sessions and Evelyn herself – make poor decisions that eventually cost them their lives. But if the overall mood and message of the film were problematic that was nothing compared to the clash between the producer and the director over the ending: Evans wanted an upbeat final scene in which the antagonist Noah Cross (John Huston) died and Evelyn survived, but Polanski fought him, and insisted Cross should get away with his actions and Evelyn should die, to the point that the relationship between Evans and Polanski soured. The director wrote the ending as seen days before it was shot.
You could argue that Towne’s screenplay – the crowning achievement of a writing career that also included The Last Detail, Being There, Shampoo and uncredited work on The Godfather – is the highlight of this film. It may be best known for the ‘Forget it, Jake…’ line but there are plenty more just as good tucked away within the script: Chinatown is packed with insults, asides, sarcastic comments, threats and more; the movie sings and sneers. Given such wonderful dialogue to work with it’s hardly a surprise that the performances by the leads are of a high standard: Nicholson’s trademark rebellious snark and charm is a perfect fit for Gittes, while Dunaway was pretty much faultless for a decade, and here she’s right in the middle of the magnificent run of work that can be traced from Bonnie And Clyde in 1967 to Network in 1976; she completely convinces as one of the few truly ‘noble’ characters in the film, and the tragic payoff at the end works perfectly as a result. The supporting cast is just as good: John Hillerman – who appeared in many of the great American New Wave films but will always be remembered for his role as Higgins in Magnum, PI – is very good as the smarmy careerist engineer within LA’s corrupt water department, while Polanski delivered a memorable turn of his own as the diminutive hood who cuts Gittes’ nose with a knife. There are other factors worth mentioning: John A. Alonzo’s impressively-framed photography gives the film its beige and gold colour palette, supposedly the result of placing Chinese tracing paper over the lens when Polanski asked him to avoid the ‘Hollywood’ look, and he also chose to alternate between shooting the actors close-up with a wide-angle lens and using a 40mm for the rest of the scenes, ensuring a pleasing mix of intimacy and distance. The period production design is also impressive, though hardly a stretch for a Hollywood film of the era: one wonders how many lock-ups full of swish costumes and decorations from the 1930s and 1940s are owned by the studios. And it’s obligatory to mention Jerry Goldsmith’s jazzy, downbeat score, famously recorded in under 10 days after Evans dispensed with Phillip Lambro’s effort at the last minute.
Considering the late changes to the film, as well as the clashes between the director and the producer (or indeed the fact that the director re-wrote and cut large amounts of what is routinely described as one of the best screenplays ever committed to page), it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise if Chinatown had ended up as a bit of a mess. But no: this is one of those rare films where so many contribute work of real worth, and it all fits together successfully; much as I’m wary of the bye that’s often given to sacred cows, it would be difficult to argue that this film didn’t deserve its ‘classic’ status. Its success initially came from viewings outside of the US – Evans later suggested that it bombed in America cinemas – but today it is rightly held up as one of the great crime mysteries, and Nicholson’s acting is up there with the very best of that decade. Its a cynical, negative work, but its ties to historical fact are strong enough to warrant its central, downbeat message about widespread corruption, as well as its complete lack of faith in authority.
Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Robert Towne.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski.
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo.
Editing: Sam O’Steen.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Running Time: 130 minutes.