a commentary by Tony McRae


A key aspect of Chinatown's narrative form is that the detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is in every scene and nearly every frame of the movie.  Though this is a not an unusual device in private eye movies (e.g., The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake), the end effect here is disconcerting because Gittes, the consummate pro, screws up.  Big time.  Part of the enjoyment in revisiting Chinatown is to see if we're smarter than Jake Gittes. Could we have done a better job?  Changed the eventual outcome?  Put the villain behind bars?

We first see Gittes at the center of a tightly regulated world.  His suit is perfectly tailored, his office that of a successful businessman (1).  By placing him in every scene, the director Roman Polanski insures that we never lose sight of Gittes, that our image of him is that of a 30s movie star.  (In fact, Robert Towne wrote his screenplay with Nicholson in mind, the Gittes character modeled on Nicholson's own manipulative charm.)  It is also Gittes' image of himself, how he wants to appear.  But to whom?  He treats everyone--his two operatives, his secretary, his clients, his former colleagues in the police department, everyone--like supporting players in his own drama.  We have the sense, especially upon repeated viewings, that  he needs his own self-approval above all else.   

To this end he has made himself into one heck of a detective, able to uncover all sorts of malfeasance from cheating wives and philandering husbands to land swindles.  He doesn't like being challenged and he certainly doesn't like being duped.  When he is, by an Evelyn Mulwray imposter (Diane Ladd), he goes to great lengths to restore his tarnished image.  Jake Gittes is certainly not interested in what's being done to L.A.'s water supply; his sole interest in the death of Hollis Mulwray, the Chief Engineer of the Department of Water and Power, is to find his killer and thus rebuild his own reputation.  When the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) tells him she's dropping the lawsuit against him he says he's not dropping the case.  "I don't want to become a local joke."  

His investigation leads him to Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn Mulwray's father and Hollis Mulwray's former partner.  Cross asks him simply to "find the girl" whom Mulwray was seeing before his death.  When Gittes suggests he wants more than that, Cross says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me you don't."  Jake smiles, "That's what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown."  Gittes' image of himself is so strong, so assured, that he will not--can not--heed such advice.  An interesting aspect of this scene is Cross's continued mispronunciation of "Gittes," giving it one syllable instead of two.  Jake corrects him twice to no avail.  Cross plays by his own rules.  It's a game Gittes isn't in.

For me the key to the movie is how Gittes sees Evelyn Mulwray, Noah Cross's daughter.  Their relationship seems at first like the usual femme fatale/private eye dynamic we've seen in many film noirs, that is, they skirmish, she lies, he uncovers the lie but is still drawn to her, he solves the case, and she receives her just desserts.  Though he probably doesn't suspect her of the murder of her husband, Gittes realizes early on that she's either lying or holding back crucial information that could lead to her husband's killer.  He's right, of course, but his inability to figure her out will be his (and her) undoing.  He sees her duplicity as a device to keep him under control, to stop him from uncovering her secret.  

We are never quite sure how he feels toward her, what his personal motives are.  Or even if he has any personal motives--aside from reestablishing his reputation.  We're never quite sure if he's sexually drawn to her.  Or even what he draws pleasure from.  Their one lovemaking scene is strangely asexual, at least as far as Gittes is concerned.  We see only the initial kiss after she removes the bandage from his nose and the post-coital bed talk (see picture) in which Polanski positions the two like static beings rather than passionate lovers.  Throughout this scene it is Evelyn who initiates the conversation, who asks about Jake's past.  The beautifully composed shot has Jake posing as if for a classical statue.  He only comes alive when a phone call forces her to leave her bed: while she is showering he gets half dressed, goes to her car, breaks a rear light so he can easily follow her.  This action comes on the heels of Evelyn asking him to trust her.  Obviously he does not.

In one sense Evelyn Mulwray is a prototypical black spider woman, the fatal temptress of film noir who drains man's strength.  But her enticement for Jake is not primarily sexual but arises from his self-idealization (akin to Freud's ego ideal), his fantasy that he can actually do good, even though he's been ignoring this tendency in favor of good money.  Screenwriter Towne has said that a dominant theme of the film is "the futility of good intentions."  But are Jake's intentions good, that is, are they without self-interest?  Sure, he does want to solve the murder, wrap up the case, the job of  detectives since the genre was born--to uncover, lay bare, find the truth.  Gittes succeeds only too well, but the truth he uncovers is too much for him.  Why?  Up to this point he has succeeded, he's been at the top of his sleuthing skills.  But it's been a career built on street smarts and a good business sense.  When he commits himself to something more, he fails.  This is the lesson Jake Gittes finally begins to understand at the film's end.

I see this story as Jake's inexorable return to Chinatown where evil not only happens but, more importantly, is unavoidable.  And the reason it is unavoidable lies within Jake himself:  he sees himself as a super-sleuth, someone who knows how to sniff out the truth which, in his experience, is "out there."  All he need do it uncover it.  But Jake is blind, not literally but metaphorically.  His blindness is both his naiveté and his hubris, the later a fatal flaw of heroes from Greek mythology to the present.  He is also an innocent, not able to imagine a a Noah Cross.  As played by John Huston, Cross is a kind of father figure, giving advice from how to eat fish to gently warning Gittes off his trail.  Of course this is after he's had his henchmen slice Gittes' nose, a metaphorical castration of a private eye's most vital appendage, leaving him unable to sniff out the necessary clues.  Jake does find the girl but by that time he's already lost in Chinatown.    

Visit the IMDb and Tom Dirks's The Greatest Films for more information about Chinatown.

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