Chinatown has two lead characters, and as dictated by the logic of the film noir genre, one must be male and one must be female. And they too must share something, usually a sense of loss, an alienated nature, and a distance from society. Chinatown’s male lead is JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private eye initially contracted by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to find proof of her husband’s infidelity. Soon enough, he thinks he does so, only to learn he’s in for something much deeper and scarier. The lady who had presented herself as Mulwray was pretending, and when he meets the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), she insists on his involvement in a different aspect of the case, one involving her husband’s now-dead body. Complications and complications arise, as they do in any noir. And this is a plot out of any noir. It’s been done hundreds of times before and since, and it seems appropriate to start here because this is Roman Polanski’s jumping-off point for paying homage to the noir genre while turning the whole thing on its head with Chinatown.
Chinatown begins as any noir with characters straight out of any noir. They are types, images, because the film is about types and images and the raw, festering human flesh searching to break out from underneath them. Gittes plays the hard-boiled loner, feigning that he doesn’t care and hiding under the noir image he wears like, well, like a fedora and a trenchcoat. Mulwray meanwhile comes off as an icy femme fatale but she hides the horrors of a broken-down shell of a life, of abuse, tormenting her and icing her over. Their doomed burgeoning relationship, the kind which must remain at the arm’s length they hold themselves at and which reveals more than we might think about the reasons why the noir genre is so detached and inhuman, is the core of the film’s drama. And so to is it the core of a film that has more to say than any other film about what the noir represents for people who have nothing and have been torn down by a bitter world. If Chinatown is a noir, it is also a commentary on the noir, a film that is scared of the noir, and a film that needs the noir.
But for all the film’s complication, the most surprising thing about Chinatown is its authenticity to the genre, and how it uses this authenticity to subtly subvert our interpretation of it. This is a film noir, one with greater freedom to include, explicitly, what had to be made implicit in the gentler ’40s, but a noir nonetheless. It deals in all the conventions, studying the femme fatales and the twisty narrative, the darkened morality and the shadowy shades of grey where lives are made and given up.
And yet it reveals all these conventions to be a deeply human form of artifice brought on by an oppressive, inhuman world, something to shield people from their own flaws and their human connection. This is a story of a man who appears to be cynical and distant, as any other noir character would be, and must hide that he cares and separate himself from the world for fear of what his care can do to other people. When he slips back into the world, a world that seemingly won’t let him go as he tries to be a man out of time, tragedy strikes again. His very attempt to save the moral world he had long given up on proves why he had given up on it. Chinatown is heartbreaking not because Jake makes “wrong” choices, but because it posits no real right choice. Concern for humanity, hope, is given no credence. Jake’s attempt to save himself ultimately destroys him and everything he is coming to love. There’s warmth here, a real care for Gittes and what he’s become and what he wants, and doesn’t want, to be, but it’s tempered by darkness. We come to see his internal trauma, and the battles he goes through, inside and out, to reconcile the side of him which cares and the side which feels it must no longer care.
In doing so, Polanski not only essays deeply complicated characters, but he reveals the types and tropes prominent in noir as pure constructions, as if created by a screenwriter. This is cynical, yes, but it isn’t the kind of mocking jadedness of Robert Altman’s brilliant revionist noir The Long Goodbye, released a year before. Chinatown doesn’t posit a way out, but unlike The Long Goodbye, it sympathizes with Gittes, and us as outsiders being drawn in to an unfamiliar world we don’t understand the rules of, by positing a shared understanding that, after all, noir detectives didn’t choose to be embittered cynics they were. They were shaped that way. This takes us upstream along the path paved by previous noirs, but then slips off slightly, giving us a character who seems to care more than any other hard-boiled noir protagonist. In doing so, it not only apes film noirs, but subtly asks us to re-think the genre. It poses an unstated, that in all noirs, one dies inside by distancing oneself from society and dies outside by trying to reconnect. Perhaps Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade couldn’t have cared if they tried. Worse, perhaps they do care, or did care once, and no longer can.
The Long Goodbye, in contrast, paints its protagonist as a hero thoroughly in the noir tradition and then judges him, ruthlessly, for it, revealing something about his in-humanness, and the in-humanness of all film noirs who ask us to root for humans who don’t care – it mocks us, brilliantly for falling in love with these characters who are one-dimensional and have depth. The protagonist in Altman’s film doesn’t care about a thing other than feeding his cat, and yet because of pure script contrivance he becomes involved in a nefarious plot – Altman is open that this is a contrivance and uses it to reflect on the contrivance in all noirs and how the characters within them are oppressively boring and bored by the world. Judging by this film, Altman sees all noir as a construct, an image, meant for a soulless audience looking for simple stories sans character or warmth or humanity.
Chinatown gives us that image, but rather than mocking the characters, reveals the cracks in the image, positing that all those noir heroes of old were in fact not intentionally inhuman or products of screenwriters but instead deeply saddened, lonely souls. The Long Goodbye drives home the falsity of film noir, while Chinatown paints it as something truer and sadder than we would like to imagine: that all of its falsities and illusions were constructed, as we construct them for ourselves, out of the need to hide the shared fragility that binds us. It reveals a little of why these characters may have distanced themselves from the world, how ineffective they might have been to stop a world crashing down before them, and how they too had been made its agents in their very cynicism. It drives this home with soul-crushing poignancy. In turn, it doesn’t mock artifice, but sees it as a deeply human necessity that filmmakers can catch onto and reproduce in film.
Chinatown’s deconstruction of noir characters, and perhaps humanity as a whole, is given a big assist by its visual element. Polanski, who returned to the US to make the film after a several year absence, is on fire here. Not only does his skill with actors give him two complex, layered lead performances, but his unparalleled sensibility for capturing mood and atmosphere create a land that complements, and even gives birth to, its seedy characters. We’re treated to an LA that appears prosperous on the surface and shady and shadowy on the inside. Above all, it appears fake. This isn’t a negative, though, but a compliment – the narrative calls for a contrast between the exterior and the interior, and Polanski gives us a dreamlike version of LA toward the beginning of the film to enhance the dissonance we feel when the proverbial sheet is pulled out from under us. It’s like a pastiche of film noir taken to its logical extreme, rendered mythical and then torn down from its perch.
Special mention should go to Polanski’s work with the intentionally exaggerated contrast between Chinatown and the rest of LA, fitting both the exaggerated nature of film noir and how Chinatown had been rendered more an enigma and a state of mind throughout the film than a true place. The rest of the film is all about heatwaves and blinding light so hot and blinding, to the point of artifice, as if meant to tamper with the judgments of its nominally cool-headed characters, but the titular location is as dark and impenetrable as can be.
And this brings us to Nicholson and Dunaway, two of the shining gem performances of the decade in which they were birthed. This performance made Nicholson a star (Dunaway had been for several years) and he gives us everything he can to bring this character to tragic life. We get confidence, dogged tenacity, confusion, pain, warmth, coldness, and all manner of emotions. He gives us a true three-dimensional individual masquerading as a one-note type. Dunaway meanwhile has less screen time but accomplishes, perhaps because of this, an even greater feat. She, as much as Nicholson, is able to explore the contrast between her character’s icy illusions and her lonely, victimized inner torment.
While these two are the cornerstones of the film, John Huston, who brought us many classic noirs (including perhaps the most famous of all, The Maltese Falcon), cast in a stroke of genius, gives us a truly slithering villain, intermixing equal parts superficial warmth and something more truthful and diabolical at the core. He’s the reverse of Jake and Evelyn, who both feign a lack of concern for the world around them to hide their inner care. In Huston, we have someone who we initially look to with respect for his avuncular persona, his charm, and his seeming compassion, and then are frightened to the bone when we see his true colors.
Perhaps understanding Chinatown requires a realization that the bruised noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, fantasies then, were more truthful for the nervy ’70s. After all, aren’t noirs always about characters being watched, or more appropriately, trying to figure out if they are being watched? No genre seems more appropriate for a film that came out during the year the Watergate scandal concluded, a time when people were more than ever coerced into self-policing their habits so that no one would have to watch them, for they would watch themselves. Chinatown is the greatest, most paranoid film from a director who specialized in the madness of being trapped with one self by an invisible social coercive force (male privilege in Rosemary’s Baby, hetero-normativity in The Tenant, and the elemental fact of social coercion and paranoia itself in Chinatown). It is the greatest for this very reason, for the same reason that another 1974 masterwork The Conversation is the greatest commentary on American in the ’70s in all of cinema: it is not about being trapped in a specific way, by something we can recognize and debate with, but about the pure fact of entrapment as we can not understand it.
In Chinatown, we have characters who are not only being watched from the outside by others, but who have to figure out how to watch themselves enough to construct the image they feel necessary in order to fit into a cynical, distant world; they aren’t simply victims of a government or a corporation, but of a social mood trickled down from those malevolent forces that inscribes itself into their hearts and minds and forces them to hurt themselves and see no other alternative but subscription. The end result isn’t commentary on noir films by perverting them, but by subverting them and, in fact, rendering them forever applicable to a modern world where people force themselves to fit types because they can’t think of an easier way to go on.