5 out of 5 stars

The detective genre has undergone many iterations since its inception. In plotting the dark, dangerous, and disturbing worlds that surround us, the detective figure becomes a living embodiment of the human desire for knowledge, understanding, and maintaining order. But what happens when the object of the detective’s investigation is the very origins of their own country?

In 1937 Los Angeles, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private detective whose work verges on the obscene. Mostly, it involves trailing people suspected of infidelity. He’s hired for a seemingly straightforward case by a woman who suspects her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is having an affair.

But then Hollis’s real wife, Evelyn Cross-Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), informs Jake that he was hired by an impostor. Then the missing Hollis is finally found—his dead body is located by the side of a reservoir. Confused, Jake realises he is in the middle of a major conspiracy, prompting a whole series of questions. Who really hired Jake? How is Evelyn involved? And if Hollis drowned in the reservoir, why was there saltwater in his lungs? The high sun that shines brightly over southern California casts long shadows—-no one can be trusted.

On his journey through L.A.’s seedy underbelly, Jake’s quest becomes the archetypal conspiracy mystery story. The secrets he uncovers lead him to the very foundations of the city; we watch as our hero traverses a spiderweb of corruption and deceit, insatiable greed, and cold-blooded murder. In the process, director Roman Polanski expertly crafts the quintessential film of the detective genre, creating a taut, winding thriller that chronicles America’s sordid origins.

Few films are as quietly grim as Chinatown, and the mood is established from the very opening titles. The mournful trumpet theme creates a hypnotic atmosphere, lulling us into a false sense of security—we can soon tell that something is amiss. It becomes a solemn, forlorn tune that perfectly sets the scene for the kind of story Polanski wanted to tell. It was for this reason that Polish auteur was producer Robert Evans’ first choice for director. Evans wanted an outsider’s perspective on the US, believing it would result in a more honest, and consequently, cynical point of view.

Evans got what he wanted. Detectives have never been characters that found themselves in light-hearted stories, but the world Gittes finds himself in is unrelentingly pessimistic. The very first shot of the film conveys this sentiment: Polanski focuses on a photograph of a woman having an affair with another man, all the while her husband Curly (Burt Young) moans in agony. However, Gittes is detached from the whole situation—his career essentially depends on people’s duplicity.

We can see that Gittes has a bleak outlook on humanity the first time someone seeks his help. When a woman tries to enlist his services as a private investigator, claiming her husband is having an affair, he sardonically feigns shock: “No… really?” Sex, betrayal, and the consequences of dark human impulses dominate his line of work. By this point in his life, after working a fateful stint in Chinatown, he believes he has seen it all. But as he will soon discover, even he can have his perception of the world irrevocably shattered.

Though he’s a morally ambiguous character, we notice early on that he has principles—and a temper. While getting a shave at the barber’s, a banker comments that he should be ashamed of himself for exposing Hollis’s affair in the newspaper. Jake stands up and threatens him, assuring his critic that his line of work is far more respectable than that of a mortgage lender: “I make an honest living! People don’t come to me unless they’re miserable, and I help them out of a bad situation. I don’t kick them out of their homes like you jerks who work at the bank!”

Whilst we get a glimpse of Jake’s questionable moral compass and short temper, we are simultaneously introduced to one of the story’s core themes: capitalism. Although this is the primary interest of screenwriter Robert Towne, he integrates it into the narrative without it ever becoming forced or sententious. He achieves this by demonstrating how personal acquisitiveness and corporate greed fuel each other, both having the potential to build or destroy entire cities.

Concurrently, Towne communicates how it is all sanctioned at a government level. Towne’s story becomes a very authentic look at the astonishing scale of corruption in the founding of America. The reptilian Noah Cross (John Huston) constantly champions his former business partner: “Hollis Mulwray made this city!” This makes it clear how wrongdoing was woven into the very fabric of the city’s beginnings.

The drought, which becomes something of a MacGuffin, is introduced early in the story. A headline in one newspaper screams: ‘Los Angeles is Dying of Thirst!’ While the broadsheet may employ hyperbole, Towne never does; he portrays the consequences of unfettered capitalism in a startlingly direct manner. As Noah Cross buys up large swathes of land and monopolises the water supply for an entire city, he shows no shame in his greed. Gittes isn’t even surprised—only bewildered: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

Cross exclaims triumphantly, “The future, Mr Gittes! The future.” It’s true: he’s bought most of the valley in the past few months, effectively controlling the entire city. By denying farmers the life-giving water they need, he could buy their land for a pittance. It’s the sort of ruthless forward-thinking that leaves people thirsty and stomachs empty.

Cross becomes the embodiment of Steinbeck’s omnipotent “great owners,” the personifications of unrestrained capitalism whom he excoriates in his 1939 magnum opus The Grapes of Wrath: “And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them anymore, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss.”

That deceit was always a mainstay of Los Angeles becomes Polanski’s thesis for the film: a city founded upon greed and wickedness. This theme is most memorably dramatised in the horrific revelation that Evelyn’s daughter is also her sister; incest serves as the ultimate emblem of corruption at the source. The incestuous relationship between Evelyn and her father, Hollis, mirrors the duplicitous institutions and disreputable connections that permeate the city.

This theme, that dishonesty and criminality are inherent from the inception, is symbolised in other moments of the film. When Jake is asked if Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) is an honest cop, he replies, “As far as it goes; of course, he has to swim in the same water we all do.” As the metropolis has been infected from its very beginnings, it makes earning an honest living nigh on impossible. To get anything done, one must first accept that immorality is part and parcel of the job: palms need greasing. Perhaps that’s why Jake is so angered by the banker’s criticism—while he desires to do good, it often isn’t a realistic ambition in this town.

This theme is also where the film gets its enigmatic title from: the omnipresent existence of corruption, being so extensive that one can’t be sure if they’re doing right or wrong. No matter what foot you put forward, you’re likely to end up aiding bad people in some way. It’s for this reason that Jake’s stint in Chinatown is frequently referenced in such foreboding terms—it’s evident things happened in that place he’d rather forget.

The nefarious engines of social institutions were a prominent theme in the 1970s. Living in the shadow of the Watergate scandal, many had come to believe that authority figures were inherently untrustworthy. Paranoia was rife, and several films from 1974, including Chinatown, reflected that. There was the anxiety-inducing The Parallax View (1974) and the sublime The Conversation (1974).

However, a subtle difference emerges between these two films and Chinatown. The latter seems to suggest that paranoia is futile; one must resign themselves to the fact that these demons have permeated American society since its inception. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” Evelyn intones ominously, suggesting that the web of deceit Jake is unravelling is far more extensive than he could possibly imagine. The malicious forces at work are as nebulous as they are dangerous; it’s impossible to know where the threat is coming from, creating an overarching air of suspicion.

This atmosphere of paranoia and distrust was a defining characteristic of the classic film noir. And despite the sun-drenched setting of southern California, Chinatown is unmistakably a film noir. However, Chinatown is different from other entries in this genre. Firstly, Towne and Polanski suggest that the source of this evil can’t be definitively removed and so the true villain of the story becomes an amorphous and indistinct entity. For this reason, it’s broader in scope than many noir films; our story becomes unrelentingly bleak.

Secondly, there is a demystification of the genre in a way that’s rather unique. Our hero is shown to be utterly powerless against the shadowy and deceitful forces that envelop him. Our femme fatale is revealed to be unthreatening; while Gittes suspects her, he realises with regret that the only thing she is hiding is her trauma. Finally, instead of rectifying the evil that oozes through city streets, our protagonist watches as this abused, frightened woman loses her life to the sinister web that ensnared her; justice will never be served since the judicial system is controlled by the wealthy, not our fedora-wearing hero.

For these reasons, Robert Towne’s screenplay is often recognised as one of the best ever written. He effortlessly combines socio-political critique with a taut, winding mystery. The story takes a while to get into gear, establishing the characters and the world in which they operate. But there’s still zero fat on the script: every scene feels essential. Each interaction either progresses the plot or develops the characters, and we are always intrigued.

Importantly, once Towne’s mystery gets going, it never loses momentum. The screenplay essentially provides a blueprint for how to write a compelling mystery: you have to let it unravel before your viewer. When Gittes investigates Hollis’s death, the coroner nonchalantly points to another corpse: “He drowned too…” The coroner’s remark acts as the first hint of a conspiracy.

This serves as a prime example of how to keep an audience engaged. We are presented with new information at the same time as Jake, meaning we are always kept on tenterhooks—our understanding of the mystery never surpasses that of our protagonist. We are forced to feel our way through the maze alongside him.

In this respect, Towne’s script demonstrates a superbly controlled release of information. We are often allowed to mislead ourselves; facts are presented, but we are made to interpret them ourselves, often leading us to the wrong conclusion. The introduction of Evelyn’s sister ensures we suspect her involvement in Hollis’s death. The gardener’s revelation that the pool has saltwater in it makes us think we’ve cracked the case, but only because Towne doesn’t immediately provide us with answers.

Not only does Towne write the plot and story well, but his characters are also brimming with background and authenticity. When Gittes asks if he can have a moment alone with Evelyn, Lt Escobar intones: “You never learn, do ya?” In five words, Towne injects Gittes’ backstory with a vivid, tragic depth. With only one line, we gain insight into Gittes’ personal demons and motivation for the case; he doesn’t want to relive what happened in Chinatown.

Similarly, the character work which Towne provided for Evelyn was superb. He masterfully disguises her terrified reactions with the furtive behaviour of a femme fatale. This again demonstrates his skill at deconstructing the genre: the only secret this femme fatale is hiding is her horrific childhood. But when Evelyn jumps at Gittes’ explanations, hoping to conceal the truth, we are allowed to assume the worst.

Towne’s script is also brimming with symbolism and foreshadowing, which makes repeat viewings not only enjoyable but essential. The bright, vibrant red lipstick Evelyn wears initially appears to suggest danger, but is instead only marking her as a red herring. As Gittes returns to Hollis’s office after seeing his corpse in the morgue, he notices that a team of workers are already scraping his name off the door; he’s being scrubbed out of history.

At the beginning of the film, after Curly mumbles incoherently through sobs that he will kill his unfaithful wife, Gittes warns him he isn’t wealthy enough to afford a crime like that. This mirrors his impassioned plea to Lt Escobar to arrest Noah Cross towards the end of the film: “He’s rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything!”

Evelyn’s death is also wonderfully foreshadowed. In one sequence, out of frustration with her conversation with Jake, she bumps her head against the steering wheel, causing it to beep. In a later scene, Gittes remarks on how there’s a mark in her eye, which she says is a birth defect. In the climactic finale, after being shot through the eye, her head falls onto the steering wheel, imbuing the entire sequence with the air of a Greek tragedy.

The script is perfect, but it benefits greatly from Polanski’s skilled direction. The Polish filmmaker had made taut, tense thrillers before he moved to Hollywood—such as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965)—and he had crafted a nightmarish paranoia film in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But it was his foray into the film noir genre that may have been his crowning cinematic achievement.

Some of his decisions were undeniably behind the film’s enduring success. He removed a voiceover that ran throughout the film; while narration is a hallmark of film noir, it might not be a very good one. Billy Wilder used it to great effect in Double Indemnity (1944), but there are more bad examples of this stylistic choice than good ones. Additionally, Polanski rewrote Towne’s script’s ending into the one we know today. While Towne fought aggressively with the director over the change, he later admitted Polanski’s ending elevated the film beyond measure.

Besides improving the writing, Polanski also made the astute decision to shoot Jack Nicholson almost entirely from behind. John A. Alonzo’s close framing over Gittes’ shoulder gives us the impression that he’s being followed and that forces are lurking behind him at all times. Because we are with Gittes in every scene of the film, Alonzo’s cinematography induces the sensation that we are being stalked in the city of Los Angeles.

Jack Nicholson delivers his first truly great performance. He was already a well-known name in Hollywood thanks to roles in films like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and Carnal Knowledge (1971), but it was Chinatown that cemented his status as a credible leading man. Nicholson portrays the private eye with a cool and nonchalant demeanour that barely conceals a simmering rage. When he finally loses control, he’s like an irascible pitbull, proving himself to be a worthy successor to Bogart.

However, it’s Faye Dunaway who steals the show. Her performance is utterly heartbreaking. Watching her attempt to hide the most personal and shocking details of her life is deeply upsetting. Dunaway brings a raw vulnerability to the role; every time Evelyn’s father is mentioned, we see a complex and nuanced response. Though Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is likely her most iconic performance, this is arguably her finest.

The influence of Polanski’s Chinatown cannot be overstated. David Lynch’s unsettling Blue Velvet (1986) often feels very similar in tone and atmosphere, albeit with a touch of surrealism. Both auteurs seem to explore similar themes in their narratives: the presence of evil lurking beneath a veneer of perfection. Lynch symbolises this with a particular shot at the film’s beginning, as our camera pans beneath a bed of roses, revealing the dark world that exists beneath beautiful things. Perhaps this was a subtle homage to Polanski’s seminal film.

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) feels at times like a direct tribute to Polanski’s work, as both depict the widespread corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. This influence can be traced well into the 21st-century. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) shares a similar mood with Polanski’s work. While the detectives may wear different attire, both attempt to tackle the urban decay that has spread due to rampant corruption.

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013), although having different goals, also explores the effect of nihilism on law enforcement officers facing a bleak and depressing world. However, Villeneuve’s much-underrated film is more of a character study than Polanski’s, examining the corrosive effects pessimism has on an individual’s psyche, woven into a psychological thriller that is arguably superior to any other released in the 21st-century.

One of the best summaries of Chinatown can, surprisingly, be found in a slice of stand-up comedy. In a predictably inflammatory routine, George Carlin discusses how everything in America is determined by money, with only a very few wealthy people and corporations pulling the strings: “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it!” This sentiment perhaps serves as a very simplified thesis for Polanski’s film.

As Jake Gittes witnesses injustice triumph yet again, there’s an unforgettable look of disgust on his face. He’s been robbed of a life once more. Living in a city so steeped in corruption is enough to make anyone who wants to do good feel worthless. The game is rigged, and by the end of the film, Jake is wondering why he’s even playing.

Chinatown is perhaps the best detective story ever put to film, not only because of the seminal script, expert direction, and towering performances, but because of what the detective is really investigating: the sordid origins of America. And although our hero solves the mystery, the truth only brings him further discontent. The unapologetic ending feels impossibly grim because it does nothing to disguise the fact that America was bought and sold a long time ago. What’s more, we are simply told to accept it: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Roman Polanski.
writer: Robert Towne.
starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd & Roy Jenson.