It’s been nearly thirty-eight years, yet Roman Polanski’s Chinatown remains easily the best detective movie of all time. Not only because of its signature closing line, or the tour de force performance by Jack Nicholson, or Faye Dunaway and John Huston showing their acting chops, or the way Polanski uses the camera to give us Jake’s perspective, or the picture-perfect scenes of L.A. in the 1930s with the cars, clothes or, even that haunting opening saxophone solo, darkly sexy and still elegiac.
It’s all those highly visible qualities and more. The more being the hidden meanings that suddenly gleam, capturing our vision, much like the set of bifocal eyeglasses that Jake sees shining in the murky depths of the Mulwray’s salt water pool.
In the nearly four decades since “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” burned its way into cinematic history as one of the greatest closing lines ever, I’ve watched this 1974 homage to film noir detective movies from the ’40s probably fifteen times. And each time I come away with something new, or something I’ve missed, or something I love seeing again and thinking about.
And that, I think, is why Chinatown still resonates—we take the journey with Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), stealing pages from the Hall of Records, asking questions, snooping in offices, falling for the dame when we know we shouldn’t, and discovering, too late, how Noah Cross (John Huston) is so prophetic: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
The first detective in literature, C. Auguste Dupin, according to his creator Edgar Allen Poe, was actually Oedipus—the tortured man careening headlong in his search for the truth and discovering at the last turn . . . himself. And that’s Jake, who did “as little as possible” when he was a cop in Chinatown and still hurt a woman that he cared for, and in the film’s shattering conclusion ends up doing the very same thing again.
Robert Towne’s screenplay is still the Holy Grail for aspiring screenwriters—watertight (in every sense), no fat or unnecessary scenes, always moving the story forward, and certainly for its other unforgettable line: “She’s my sister and my daughter.”
And while most detective yarns involve two stories: first a murder-mystery, then its solution, Towne, with considerable input from Polanski, structured a duality throughout the film that stretched the envelope and designed everything in twos—with a dual purpose, a dual interpretation and, even, a dual physicality.
There are two Mrs. Mulwrays—the fake one, Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) and the real one, wan, beautiful Faye Dunaway. They both die.
Two men drown—Hollis Mulwray at the reservoir; and a hobo, in the dry-as-a-bone L.A. riverbed.
Even Jake’s name is set up as a two-fer: his initials, J.J., and the two pronunciations of his last name —Gittes as he introduces himself and “Gits” as Noah Cross perfidiously insists on calling him.
The characters’ eyes, beyond just coming in pairs, also have a duality. Their vision and focus is continually blurred or damaged. Jake’s sunglasses are shattered in a fight with the farmer’s son in the orange groves. When Curly’s cheating wife (who we see at the beginning of the movie in the “dirty” black-and-white photos) opens the door for Jake, she has a black eye. And finally the femme fatale, Evelyn, “There’s something black in the green part of your eye,” Jake says. The same eye that will be destroyed by detective Loach’s ricocheting bullet off the means streets of Chinatown.
Duality leads to ambiguity. When Evelyn says, “My father and I . . .” then cannot admit any more, we accept her silence as a child of incest. But then comes the stunning reversal from which Jake, and we the audience, are set adrift as to who is the true villain: Jake asks, “Did he rape you?” Again Evelyn doesn’t answer, but this time her silent stare says everything: even the unspeakable, that she was . . . complicit.
This complicity is but a quieter echo of her father’s. Unlike his biblical namesake, Noah Cross is no God-fearing obedient servant. He is the personification of evil—amoral, ruthless, and single-minded in his quest for power: “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gits, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they’re capable of anything!” It is the way Houston delivers “anything”—with such a sinister, snarling finality; we know the dark triumph of evil is inevitable.
That Cross ends up killing Hollis Mulwray, his former business partner, the man who married Evelyn and gave legitimacy and a cover story to Cross’s incestuous child, to achieve his plans—float a bond issue and build a dam to steal water from Los Angeles—shows majestically the satanic power of corruption: “You see, Mr. Gits, either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water.”
To the desert community of Los Angeles in the 1930s, water was power. And power was everything! Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is a sub-rosa context to it being called the department of “Water and Power.”
It is a power Jake’s never seen and cannot comprehend. He thinks he can expose Cross and solve the case but doesn’t realize he’s already lost and is barely a pawn on the big board.
And when the revelation does occur it is at a heart-ripping price: the death of the woman and a shattered life for the hero.
The detective as Oedipus, John Alonzo’s incredible color cinematography that seems like a deckle-edged postcard, bravura acting by the entire cast (even small parts like Alan Warnick’s uber-obnoxious city hall clerk), Polanski’s best film (including his memorable cameo as a switchblade-toting, nose-slashing goon), a detective who likes crackin’ wise while cracking cases and discovers, too late, he’s in over his head, who could forget a movie like that?
John Geraci is an award-winning screenwriter who recently turned his talents to fiction. He looks forward to this December and the launching of his novel Dead Man Talking—a thriller set in a Southern California beach town where the dead bodies are beginning to outnumber the tanned ones.