Polanski Chinatown Analysis Essay

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Definitions of film noir generally fall into that same blurry netherworld that one Supreme Court justice famously engaged to avoid defining pornography: words may fail in the description, but you know one when you see one. Unfortunately, such a connotative definition of film noir relies far too heavily upon a surface reading of cinematic effects too often shared with other genres, especially nowadays. Dramatic shadows, low camera angles, too many corrupt men with shields and criminals with a sense of honor to tell the goods from the bad guys with any semblance of sureness. And, of course, what is any film noir worth its name that doesn’t feature world-weary voice-over narration and starkly divergent good girls and femmes fatale? All are irrefutably essential to crafting the perfect film noir, but rejecting any film based upon the exclusion of or or two elements can have the effect of assigning any black and white film from the 1940s where a crime is committed unfairly into this exclusive category reserved for a special “feeling” more than anything else.

The big revisionist approach undertaken by 1970s filmmakers to bring film noir back from the death of the late, late show must inevitably start with a feeling engendered precisely celebration of the victory over Richard Nixon and Watergate and the awakening to corrosion of corruptibility that came with the realization that the more things change the more they stay the same. The most arresting thing about Chinatown may well be that it takes just as many liberties with those fundamental cinematic elements of film noir as The Big Sleep; perhaps the ultimate film for starting an argument over whether it is or whether it isn’t. Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway, is hardly the most forthright character in movie history, but ultimately is proven to be at least as honest as Lauren Bacall’s character in The Big Sleep. Even more to the point on the subject of Polanski’s film, Mrs. Mulwray is eventually divulged as the most brutally honest excuse for a femme fatale that will likely ever populate the dark world of this genre.

When the credits roll at the beginning of Chinatown they are written in the glamorous script and filmed in the sepia tones consistent with the classic noirs of the 1940s, but as soon as those credits reach their end the audience thrust headlong into the most unfamiliar territory ever covered by film noir: the 1940s as presented in the Technicolor reality of the 1970s. The viewer is not in fully inhabiting the world of film noir after all, but he is fully situated within the post-Watergate world of neo-noir that will extend from the post-WWII recreation of Chinatown through the brutal 1980s Florida humidity of Body Heat and beyond. When the literally light-nosed (get it, he’s not a hardnosed private dick like the ones played by Bogey) detective played by Jack Nicholson is given the most useful advice ever offered in the cinema of the 1970’s—“forget it, Jake…it’s Chinatown”—it is not just a case of an outsider being advised to forget about trying to penetrate to justice in the world he can’t understand. It is a clarion call to lovers of film noir no matter what films they personally choose for inclusion and exclusion to realize that the rules of noir exist independently of the black and white world of heavy shadows in 1940s bedrooms and offices. Chinatown reminds us that film noir can exist anywhere…and anytime.

That the neo-noir resurrection that extends in a non-linear line progressing from the obvious example of Chinatown through the more prickly example of Blade Runner is an expression of awakening from the big sleep of feeling like things were going to be all right after all when the greatest threat to democracy in America proved to come not from external opposition but rather internal opposition. Each time that awakening renews itself following the latest slumber arrived on the wings of hope, it further cements the reality that it cannot be stamped out of consciousness. After all, the villains of these films have been elevated from the small time hoods and gangsters of the 1940s to prominent businessmen and the political puppets who change laws to suit their desires for greater profits. The moral ambiguity of the film noirs of the 1940s has expanded ever wider to include those whom the public once deemed to be well above such ethical lapses. What occurs in neo-noir that distinguishes it the most from proto-noir, of course, is now we known for certain that nobody at all is above suspicion.

Jake is isolated, and as such has the power to root out causes and see things as they are, but it limits his power. Only an organized force like the police could take apart Cross’s empire, but of course that force is constructed to defend Cross and others like him - to protect property. The small everyday justices of a police force are undermined by their selective worldview. Jake and Lou Escobar are set up as doubles and opposites. They worked together in Chinatown, are almost strange friends, but are vitally divergent. Jake tried to interfere in some way with the carefully preserved separation of Chinatown’s institutions. Escobar on the other hand kept to his brief and also expounded the presumably racist ignorance of it, performing small-time, abusive acts of policing (arresting "Chinamen for spitting in the laundry" as Jake terms it, clarifying all his distaste for the institutions he has rejected) in substitution for intervention. The roles of the characters are predestined - paths of fate long since laid out and are followed through with tragic persistence. One change Polanski made to the script emphasized this - Jake notices a "flaw" in Evelyn’s left eye’s iris, precisely where the bullet will later come out.

The "Biblical" or Mythic interpretation takes the tale out of specific circumstance and shows how it is an eternal story. Where the "Watergate" reading involves a specific failure of American philosophy, the Mythical one points out that the same blighted battles occur in every society. Good men sell their souls or fail, evil men prosper. The intent is clear in the messianic name of Noah Cross, the ultimate corrupter constructed from religious icons. Like a Biblical king he rules a ruined landscape, in a town rising from a poisonous desert, controlling the very life-blood of the town (its water) with his influence infecting that blood (salt water – "bad for the glass"). Like many Classical villains in Biblical, Grecian, and Shakespearean stories, Cross is incestuous; as with the Egyptian pharaohs, the imperial self-regard of the appointed tyrant leads inevitably to a wish to restrict the movement of blood within a select circle for the sake of purity and a decreased chance for the empire being diffused through marriage and division. This sense of aristocratic apart-ness, that Cross has clearly fostered in his life extends to the uncertainty of how Evelyn can’t say he raped her. (This aspect of the film is possibly influenced by Norman Mailer’s "An American Dream" where the satanic industrialist Barney Kelly had also had sex with his daughter). This is why Cross’s specific desire is to snatch Katherine - his aim is an untouchable empire of the self - in Katherine, the Cross blood less diluted than it would be in any normal child. Like Oedipus Rex, which has often been called the first detective story, "Chinatown" involves an uncovering of events that reveals coinciding concerns of power and incest.

There’s another way of seeing the film, as a parable of the build-up to the Second World War, in a world where fascistic power is building amidst a sea of self-interest, and Jake could be construed as an equivalent of F.D.R. (whose visage appears in the town hall an impotent symbol presiding over a developing conspiracy).

The film pulls off the trick of presenting these aspects within the framework of pure genre. The film wryly introduces itself through a mode of nostalgia; the opening credits reproducing the style of the ‘30s crime flicks, bringing us into a story the uses all the elements of genre but for specifically modern purposes. Towne uses names carefully in the genre pattern, names you don’t forget - Noah Cross, Claude Mulvehill, Jasper Lamar Crabbe. The pseudo-nostalgia is undermined and reprocessed into examining how views of society, both in everyday perception and in the movies, have changed. Elements latent in the noir/crime genre – the connection between Establishment and Gangland, the threats of sexual perversity and total loss of moral governing – have become definite and deadly. The film is closer to Hammett than Chandler, despite the L.A. setting, because where Chandler was mostly a stylist, Hammett had dealt directly with the world he wrote about with and his vision of an adolescent American society filled with violence, corruption, and carefully divided yet entwined spheres of society, is still tangibly relevant. The film’s aim then is partly to win the genre away from Hollywood and return it to its harder literary roots, and then reality.

In opposition to Cross, J.J. Gittes is identified by a name almost funny and almost an insult. Jake is particularly human. He spends much of the film being abused but thinks on his feet. He’s not two-fisted, he’s a gazelle more than a lion. He’s marked by his clean, cool manners but swings to being hot-headed and vulgar. When he crawls out of his wrecked car and is being poked with a crutch he flares up and despite being woozy and injured tries to punch the men around him. One of the film’s neatest pleasures is in watching Jake’s way of handling situations: annoying Mulwray’s secretary, sneaking into the reservoir with the deputy water commissioner’s card, tearing the page out of the land register, lying his way into the retirement home. For once, the hero is as intelligent as the audience, quicker from experience. He’s a pragmatist and operates as a P.I. simply because it makes a good living from what he’s good at: his investigation skills, learned in the police force. Largely one feels he wanted to get as far away from the lie of the police force as possible, although Jake’s method of making money, spying on infidelities, could be a very down-market form of moral retribution. He figures hell, they deserve it.

Jake’s motivations are fluid, gathering and changing with the development of the case. He doesn’t want Evelyn to drop her lawsuit because it could appear that she bought him off. He says, after his nose has been cut, still thinking he can master the situation, that he wants to "sue the shit out of them!" a way of both making money and getting revenge. He wants to take Evelyn to the police even after sleeping with her when he thinks she’s holding Katherine captive. He’ll only go out of his way to actively protect her when he discovers the worst, deepest secret she’s hiding. His sense of justice is fixed but the forms of it he aims for shift. He’s equal parts responsible to truth and to his own ass. That he really is ultimately disgusted by the situation is made clear at the end; "He’s rich!" he shouts at Escobar to establish Cross’s obscenity. He defined the rule of Chinatown as to do "as little as possible". It’s a rule he tries to keep to, having learned his lesson, but can’t.

What happened in Chinatown? Check out the following in-bed exchange

EVELYN: Why was it – why was it bad luck?

JAKE: I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt.

EVELYN: (In French then English) Was there a woman involved?

JAKE NODS: PHONE RINGS.

And the same event is repeating. Even the thread of fate will resolve events in the same place. Jake is haunted by his romanticism. On seeing Evelyn’s dead body he repeats his old commander’s dictum: "As little as possible". Jake’s gab fails him precisely when he needs it, trying to hand the case over to the cops. His voice rises in pitch as he tries to make Escobar listen, but can’t. Nobody’s interested.

R.D. Heath writes novels and osting as Mactheknife4 , Movie forums participant R.D. Heath wrote this essay about Roman Polanski's "Chinatown."

"Chinatown," despite being an obvious homage to Chandler and Hammett, represents developments upon those writers’ themes. The problem with most modern noir is in its attempts to reproduce the same archetypes that fed the ‘30s and ‘40s melodramas. "Chinatown," on the other hand, tells the story about a corrupt universe that Hammett wished to write about but couldn’t. James Ellroy too developed upon the moral framework of Hammett and Chandler but whilst Ellroy’s work plays up the inherent neurotic depths of the marginal people in this world of crime, "Chinatown" heads in explicitly social and political directions in a town that’s practically a wasteland of anything except homes for living, bars for drinking, and places of work - L.A., the world’s largest shanty town. Ellroy is baroque, cramming his pages full of bizarreness. Polanski is minimalist, suggestive. Evil oozes out of apparent calmness and banality. It’s testimony to the gifts of Polanski, is accord with his director of photography John Alonzo, that they make the sunlight which kisses L.A. appear to be eating it. One of the results of sun and heat is rot – L.A. next to the sea seems on film to reek of fish and seaweed.

There are two main approaches to the meaning of "Chinatown" - the "Watergate" view and the "Biblical" view, with one overlying the other.

The "Watergate" view is fairly obvious. Instead of the criminals being outlying gangsters, gamblers, and hustlers with tenuous, perhaps insidious connections into the establishment that can tolerate them because they feed their vices, instead of vice being the property of outsiders, drifters, slum-dwellers or dead-eyed suburban losers and predators, here it flows directly from the most respectable man in town, who aims to be even more respectable; in fact he wants to leave his name on the town as firmly as Mulholland. The future shall venerate Noah Cross’s name and regard him as a founding father. It’s the Imperialist’s mentality, for 75 years Rhodesia enshrined the name of a grand criminal, and the same phenomenon manifests itself through all societies. The cops are a mixture of the plain stupid and careful ignorance. In fact it’s Perry Lopez’s Lou Escobar who is both the film’s true villain because of his refusal, as opposed to Jake, to involve himself in the deeper villainies - his edge-of-the-teeth barks at Jake after refusing to listen to his explanations are emblematic of every two-bit yes man and blind-eye turner in history. This is not to say he is not a moral man, which compounds his failure. Escobar is almost desperate in his attempts to block out the truth and ends up with a woman’s brain spread out across a Chinatown street. Escobar is left disgusted amidst a shattered scene - nothing makes sense anymore. His freeing Jake at the end could be for a number of reasons. If he can get rid of the onlookers he’ll be free to concoct any explanation he wants. Jake, if he stays around, might just get someone to listen to his story, so Evelyn’s death will be a murder. Also, the horror of the moment might make Escobar feel sick with himself and see that he owes it to Jake, really "a favor".

On the other hand, we have Jake. In classic detective fiction, the private eye is a loner, unfettered by police procedures or hierarchy, free to squirm his way through the underworld and dissect it. At the start of "Chinatown" we have Jake doing what a private dick does most (along with industrial theft cases): investigating marital infidelity. Here the private investigator really is a bottom-feeder, albeit curiously elegant and full of himself. For once, the processes and techniques of a P.I.’s work are shown with detail. Jake is a particularly complex mutation on the historical figure of the private eye. Like Phil Marlowe, he’s an ex-cop whose personal qualities single him out. Why Marlowe quit we have to guess. Jake explains in fractured points throughout the film exactly why he left, and it turns out to be for the same reasons he pursues the film’s case so thoroughly. Despite fulfilling a seedy role in society, he is a moral individual, perhaps a good working definition of a dictum that even great men can be no better than the reality about them. J.J.’s work allows him to a certain extent to retain his morality. Where he is powerless, where he is always powerless, is in taking on social structures. His initial failure in Chinatown is eventually reproduced on an even larger scale; just he can’t combat the structures of a village of immigrants, he certainly can’t muster the tools needed to deconstruct a conspiracy emanating from the central powers of the society he lives within. There is an implicit reconstruction of the pioneer myth - not so much different to the classical Western myth of the lone lawman and violent frontier, but an entirely different view of it. The world is built by pirates, exploiters, criminals, ruthless tyrants, and is then policed in follow-up, lawmen as moral janitors and social undertakers.

Jake is isolated, and as such has the power to root out causes and see things as they are, but it limits his power. Only an organized force like the police could take apart Cross’s empire, but of course that force is constructed to defend Cross and others like him - to protect property. The small everyday justices of a police force are undermined by their selective worldview. Jake and Lou Escobar are set up as doubles and opposites. They worked together in Chinatown, are almost strange friends, but are vitally divergent. Jake tried to interfere in some way with the carefully preserved separation of Chinatown’s institutions. Escobar on the other hand kept to his brief and also expounded the presumably racist ignorance of it, performing small-time, abusive acts of policing (arresting "Chinamen for spitting in the laundry" as Jake terms it, clarifying all his distaste for the institutions he has rejected) in substitution for intervention. The roles of the characters are predestined - paths of fate long since laid out and are followed through with tragic persistence. One change Polanski made to the script emphasized this - Jake notices a "flaw" in Evelyn’s left eye’s iris, precisely where the bullet will later come out.

The "Biblical" or Mythic interpretation takes the tale out of specific circumstance and shows how it is an eternal story. Where the "Watergate" reading involves a specific failure of American philosophy, the Mythical one points out that the same blighted battles occur in every society. Good men sell their souls or fail, evil men prosper. The intent is clear in the messianic name of Noah Cross, the ultimate corrupter constructed from religious icons. Like a Biblical king he rules a ruined landscape, in a town rising from a poisonous desert, controlling the very life-blood of the town (its water) with his influence infecting that blood (salt water – "bad for the glass"). Like many Classical villains in Biblical, Grecian, and Shakespearean stories, Cross is incestuous; as with the Egyptian pharaohs, the imperial self-regard of the appointed tyrant leads inevitably to a wish to restrict the movement of blood within a select circle for the sake of purity and a decreased chance for the empire being diffused through marriage and division. This sense of aristocratic apart-ness, that Cross has clearly fostered in his life extends to the uncertainty of how Evelyn can’t say he raped her. (This aspect of the film is possibly influenced by Norman Mailer’s "An American Dream" where the satanic industrialist Barney Kelly had also had sex with his daughter). This is why Cross’s specific desire is to snatch Katherine - his aim is an untouchable empire of the self - in Katherine, the Cross blood less diluted than it would be in any normal child. Like Oedipus Rex, which has often been called the first detective story, "Chinatown" involves an uncovering of events that reveals coinciding concerns of power and incest.

There’s another way of seeing the film, as a parable of the build-up to the Second World War, in a world where fascistic power is building amidst a sea of self-interest, and Jake could be construed as an equivalent of F.D.R. (whose visage appears in the town hall an impotent symbol presiding over a developing conspiracy).

The film pulls off the trick of presenting these aspects within the framework of pure genre. The film wryly introduces itself through a mode of nostalgia; the opening credits reproducing the style of the ‘30s crime flicks, bringing us into a story the uses all the elements of genre but for specifically modern purposes. Towne uses names carefully in the genre pattern, names you don’t forget - Noah Cross, Claude Mulvehill, Jasper Lamar Crabbe. The pseudo-nostalgia is undermined and reprocessed into examining how views of society, both in everyday perception and in the movies, have changed. Elements latent in the noir/crime genre – the connection between Establishment and Gangland, the threats of sexual perversity and total loss of moral governing – have become definite and deadly. The film is closer to Hammett than Chandler, despite the L.A. setting, because where Chandler was mostly a stylist, Hammett had dealt directly with the world he wrote about with and his vision of an adolescent American society filled with violence, corruption, and carefully divided yet entwined spheres of society, is still tangibly relevant. The film’s aim then is partly to win the genre away from Hollywood and return it to its harder literary roots, and then reality.

In opposition to Cross, J.J. Gittes is identified by a name almost funny and almost an insult. Jake is particularly human. He spends much of the film being abused but thinks on his feet. He’s not two-fisted, he’s a gazelle more than a lion. He’s marked by his clean, cool manners but swings to being hot-headed and vulgar. When he crawls out of his wrecked car and is being poked with a crutch he flares up and despite being woozy and injured tries to punch the men around him. One of the film’s neatest pleasures is in watching Jake’s way of handling situations: annoying Mulwray’s secretary, sneaking into the reservoir with the deputy water commissioner’s card, tearing the page out of the land register, lying his way into the retirement home. For once, the hero is as intelligent as the audience, quicker from experience. He’s a pragmatist and operates as a P.I. simply because it makes a good living from what he’s good at: his investigation skills, learned in the police force. Largely one feels he wanted to get as far away from the lie of the police force as possible, although Jake’s method of making money, spying on infidelities, could be a very down-market form of moral retribution. He figures hell, they deserve it.

Jake’s motivations are fluid, gathering and changing with the development of the case. He doesn’t want Evelyn to drop her lawsuit because it could appear that she bought him off. He says, after his nose has been cut, still thinking he can master the situation, that he wants to "sue the shit out of them!" a way of both making money and getting revenge. He wants to take Evelyn to the police even after sleeping with her when he thinks she’s holding Katherine captive. He’ll only go out of his way to actively protect her when he discovers the worst, deepest secret she’s hiding. His sense of justice is fixed but the forms of it he aims for shift. He’s equal parts responsible to truth and to his own ass. That he really is ultimately disgusted by the situation is made clear at the end; "He’s rich!" he shouts at Escobar to establish Cross’s obscenity. He defined the rule of Chinatown as to do "as little as possible". It’s a rule he tries to keep to, having learned his lesson, but can’t.

What happened in Chinatown? Check out the following in-bed exchange

EVELYN: Why was it – why was it bad luck?

JAKE: I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt.

EVELYN: (In French then English) Was there a woman involved?

JAKE NODS: PHONE RINGS.

And the same event is repeating. Even the thread of fate will resolve events in the same place. Jake is haunted by his romanticism. On seeing Evelyn’s dead body he repeats his old commander’s dictum: "As little as possible". Jake’s gab fails him precisely when he needs it, trying to hand the case over to the cops. His voice rises in pitch as he tries to make Escobar listen, but can’t. Nobody’s interested.

R.D. Heath writes novels and screenplays. He lives in the city of Lithgow, in the state of New South Wales,

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