Both an homage to and a re-working of classic film noir cinema, Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown, a technically superb and multi-layered film about the corruption of politics and morals, stuns its protagonist to the core of his self when he opens a Pandora’s box of shamelessness.
Compare the smiling and radiant face of J. J. Gittes – like the 1930s sunny Los Angeles itself – at the beginning of the film, when he is talking to the allegedly Mrs Mulwray, with the horror at the end, after he has witnessed the reach of human depravity. Never has a private eye been taken for such a ride or taken so many things for granted. The magnitude of the transformation in the protagonist’s face mirrors the disparity between the world before the 1970s and the prevalent cynicism of nowadays.
Private detective J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a certain Mrs Mulwray – in fact, Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) – to uncover her husband’s extramarital affair. When the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up at Gittes’ office we have a hint that nothing will ever be as it seems. Chief engineer for the Department of Water and Power of Los Angeles, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the man being investigated, is seen with a young woman. Then he is seen at the beach; later, he is found dead. Though Evelyn Mulwray offers Gittes some compensation for services dismissed, spellbound by his own deluded ability to solve the case, he insists, and eventually stumbles onto high levels of corruption, land speculation, and a case of incest.
In a short period during the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s a handful of films killed American innocence. In those few years, which were to become a benchmark in American cinema, the movies, along with the nation, turned cynical. What other masterpieces of the period did to the perfection of suburban life (The Graduate), to the illusion of the American Dream (The Godfather), and to the nobility of police officers (Serpico), Chinatown would do to democracy in the US. It was time something or some-one challenged the far-fetched idea which takes for granted American exceptionalism.
..The Ultimate Smart-cum-Naïve Private Eye.
As idealized society started to crumble at the end of the 60s and American cinema was enjoying a renaissance, Chinatown came along to depict the full extent of human nature and its potential flaws. Noah Cross (John Huston) – the purest of all villainous characters and as a truly despicable man, capable of the ultimate violation of trust – becomes the hardest pill to swallow when he mentions the future. Even though absolutely not unexpected, it still shocks us when such a monstrous human being displays, and in fact, points this out himself, such a prevalent human trait: the will to live. It is inevitable that his justification (‘The future, Mr Gitts, the future!’) for his greed and callousness will disgusts us for finding itself in our own motives.
Deep down, inside us, we all know that he is so much like us. He might be a monster who disregards fellow humans in favour of his selfish pursuits, but these such pursuits are the ones that so many (too many, in fact?!) want to pursue too. People crave money, power and prestige, all in order to hide their own inadequacies. If I am on top of others, then they can’t be on top of me. And even though most people will never reach such levels of power to subjugate others, we, Homo sapiens do not dig rational conclusions; you see, we prefer fantasies. Fortunately, as Noah Cross himself understands, ‘most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.’
One of the several reasons the film is a masterpiece is because it does not provide us with simple answers. In contrast to Cross, we do not have the perfect hero. Robert Towne’s perfectly constructed script does not deal in black and white, simplistic characterization. Gittes is surely idealistic in his pursuit of the truth at all costs, but it seems it is more to do with pride than with concern. He wants to know because, firstly he is curious and is ready to satisfy an urge, but most importantly, because he felt cheated, short-changed by the first Mrs Mulwray. Being outsmarted as he was, now he feels a strong impetus to prove to others, but especially to himself, that he can be smarter than them all – with fatal consequences.
As Gittes asks of Cross we could also ask of America: why is the country still fighting meaningless wars and invading countries, when it already has plenty for everyone? And if Noah Cross is the America of big money and oil entrepreneurs and mortal armies invading other lands, then J. J. Gittes is the America of idealism and nobility and cheerfulness. A beautiful contradiction indeed! Like some Canadians once said about the New World man: ‘He’s not concerned with yesterday – He knows constant change is here today – He’s noble enough to know what’s right – But weak enough not to choose it.’ Perhaps, we need foreign people, like Polanski, to enlighten this great and fascinating myth of North America.
Technically, Chinatown is perfect – every single element of the film is superbly constructed. Thematically it is not only poignant and profound, but also enduringly relevant.