Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.
Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.
It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.
The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?
His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?
Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?
It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.
I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.
Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.
Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.
This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.