Today – whatever day you are reading this will do fine – we are going to discuss seriously about the movie Chinatown. I put an emphasis on « seriously » because this is going to be a fairly long article. Before discussing the film we are going to need a little context. Why? Because it is important, in every artwork, film, photograph, context gives you the full meaning of the work. Have I said it enough? Context, context, context.
The 70’s in America was a troubled period to say the least. The country was in full Cold War mode against the Commies, the Watergate Scandal splattered all over their spirit of democracy, there was an energy and an oil crisis, the Vietnam War and of course the Kennedy assassination. All these elements contributed to make of this era one of the most pessimistic since the Great Depression. Keep that in mind, and you will see how the film resonates with the historical context.
Chinatown was not written by Roman Polanski, it was however written by Robert Towne, an American screenwriter whose best known work was Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn (1967). Inspired by the American film noir genre, Robert Towne wrote what was, and still is, considered as a tribute to the genre. Roman Polanski for his part had become very famous with his on screen adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). However, before shooting Chinatown, Polanski was dealing with commercial failure, his last three movies were disasters at the box office. Luckily for him, Chinatown was a huge success, the budget was estimated at $6,000,000 and it grossed around $30,000,000 worldwide.
But why make a noir film? The answer lies in the genre himself, and if you already know what the noir genre is, you can skip ahead. The term “noir” comes from a French man called Nino Frank who came up with it to name his book collection of American police/crime novels: “série noire”. In cinematic terms the genre has specific codes that have been established by the many directors of the trillions noir films existing, so much so that elements embody the genre: stock characters for example: a hard-boiled detective and a femme fatale struggling in a black and white environment with sharp chiaroscuro effects and murder on their minds. Contextually, It is a genre that appeared post-World War II, another very pessimistic era in America especially with the Great Depression roaming the country. See how it correlates? For Polanski and Towne it probably made sense to revive a genre that was born out of struggling times to comment on their own troubled period. Interestingly, the noir genre had completely died out.
The setting of the movie itself is revealing: Los Angeles. This city is famous for his stars, its glamour, and Hollywood. However, this aspect is completely overlooked in the film. There is no mention of its celebrities, or even of the movie industry. The only reference is within a line at the beginning: “When you get so much publicity, let’s face it, you’re gonna get blasé. You’re practically a movie star, Jake!” Polanski’s decision to exclude this aspect reveals an envy to anchor the viewer in the reality of his motion picture. By cutting off the glamorous aspect of the star-system in the movie, he permits the viewer to project in a world where it doesn’t exist. In a way, he shows a world where dreams and movies don’t occur. And that is very symptomatic of everything the film tries to express: loss, and especially the loss of the American Dream.
But is Chinatown specifically a noir film? No, it isn’t. What Polanski and Towne did is capture the essence of the genre and breathe a new life into it : the neo-noir. Literally: the new black. This genre has troubles being defined with accuracy. Its definition varies; some say that it’s simply the noir genre transposed in modern times. Others call on to a brand new aesthetics in movies that has been taken from noir films and transformed. Also for some it appears clear that Chinatown was one of the first of this genre, which led to a new form of cinema. To others the “real” neo-noir begun in the 1980’s with movies like Body Heat by Lawrence Kasdan. Although, despite the complexity of the genre, some elements are undeniable: It was developed on the backbone of the classic American noir film, but the neo-noir broadened the genre, it mixed it, with science fiction, thriller, drama, horror, fantastic… It brought the genre to an extent where there is no limit to the story telling.
Clearly there are elements that are undividable with the genre. As it was said earlier, this genre emerged in a troubled America and it carries its anxieties. There are no more heroes, only antiheroes, and it appears to me that it’s the first characteristic of the neo-noir: The villain and the hero are the same. In Chinatown the main character J.J. Gittes is the blend of the detective and the villain. It’s a theme traditional in the noir films, a switch between the good criminal and the bad cop. However, you don’t see in neo-noir movies, what you would expect on the screen : tilted camera angles, low-key lighting etc.
Why is that so? We know that the audience, as well as cinema, is anchored in its time and its reality. Therefore as the viewer adapts to the codes of the noir films and is used to those. He finds himself in need of new, he needs new tropes so that he can relate. In fact, the film noir is limited in time and in space. It corresponds to a particular time in history. New technics in the movie industry are invented everyday; the most striking use of those would be the movie Sin City by Robert Rodriguez or Zodiac by David Fincher.
However, there are themes that arise from noir films and that every neo-noir movie uses : alienation, moral ambivalence, confusion and pessimism. In Chinatown, everything is twisted. Even though, the setting is in sunny Los Angeles, an immediate sense of insecurity is established, our hero is a wisecracking detective dealing with cases of adultery, the cops are rotted, and the richest part of the population owns everything. Those elements of scenario are directly taken from the ideology transpired by noir movies.
Chinatown came out in 1974, and hence black and white movies were not fashionable anymore, yet without the sharp chiaroscuro effects, the film managed to use the lighting accordingly to create a distorted ambiance. The colors of the setting seem faded; the light is very bright, which gives the feeling of an omnipresent sun on camera, with a dull light on the interior scenes. In the film, Los Angeles is the prey of a terrible drought, and the film suggests that this drought is not only in space, but also has drained everybody of its colors and will. There is also a feeling of isolation emanating from the characters. Most of the time, they appear alone in the shots, and even when together, they look secluded. This idea is visible especially with the character of J.J. Gittes, his associates only appear on screen for just a few minutes. Most of his investigation Gittes will do it alone.
However, Nicholson’s character appear very detached from his investigation. Even if he is hard-boiled and capable of beating a man to death, he is shown being afraid when threatened, and when he gets a solid lead for his investigation, and a cry for help, from the woman who tricked him before, he backs down and goes to sleep. Human weaknesses are introduced with his character, something the typical noir movie heroes doesn’t have. The typical noir detective ravels in this world of dark corners, murders, sex, deviant morality and investigations. J.J. Gittes doesn’t. He doesn’t care for this world, and moreover he is afraid of it. That notion of disenchantment is one that can be found in almost every neo noir movie, and that loneliness is central in most of the noir heroes.
Which leads to the recurrent theme in the film: the loss of virtue, faith and the American dream. Chinatown puzzles his audience, for as a viewer – it is so since the dawn of times – you expect every story to have a conclusion. The murderer gets caught, the villain is punished, and lovers are reunited. Chinatown will never deliver such a message. During the movie, the viewer participate in an investigation, it gets the clues when the main character finds them. However, there will never get to a conclusion. Even if Gittes discovered why and how Noah Cross did to take control of the valley, he will never get to punish the bad guy and to rescue the girl. All of this is contained in a unique sentence: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Because why the title Chinatown? The setting takes place in Los Angeles, however we learn throughout the film that J.J. Gittes worked in Chinatown, and he will mention it at various times, leading the viewer to guess that what happened changed him. We will learn that his character was confronted with a similar case back in Chinatown, where he didn’t manage to help the woman. With the sentence “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”, J.J. Gittes, is sensibly told to forget all of this, as if he was to know beforehand that it was meant to happen. By that, they mean that Chinatown is an incontrollable force where the good guy gets shot and where crime happens in broad daylight. Historically, Chinatown was known for being a dangerous place in the 1910’s with opium dens, gambling houses and open warfare between rival gangs.
So when his friends tell Jake to forget, they mean that Chinatown, as well as Los Angeles has become a lawless place. An idea that is given all along the movie as the investigation goes further, as if Jake tried to avoid the truth, and with his detachment he actually avoids responsibilities and sometimes even clues. For even if some things are in front of him, Gittes chooses to ignore them. Even the character of Evelyn Gittes confronted with such a twisted situation cannot comprehend the violence of Cross’s character. In the end he is left with nothing but stupefaction and sadness. All those elements corroborate the idea of a broken American dream, a disillusion; there is no more trace of the beautiful lands and ideas that had the first settlers. Here, everything is bleak, faded, twisted and villainy controls the place. All of this is going further with the murder of Evelyn by a policeman. Thus completely erasing the virtue from the movie. Her death really disturbs the viewer who is not used to see dead female characters. Evelyn’s character highlights during the movie what is good in humanity, even if she carries a dark secret she is always the ray of hope for Gittes’ character and her daughter/sister. The destruction of this dream is gradual, and the climax is her death.
To conclude, we could say that Chinatown was a movie created on the basis of a typical noir film, its characters are archetypes of noir heroes, the story deals with the corruption and villainy of mankind, but the codes were readapted to another audience. The period when this movie was shot transpires through the plot line and the behavior of the figure of authorities. Two of the most beloved American figures had been shot (MLK, and JFK), and the country was in decline. But even though, with a genre that has such stereotypical recurrent themes. Polanski managed to create a new genre, developing its characters personality and adding a sense of anxiety in Los Angeles in broad daylight, almost Hitchockian.
Polanski dives the viewer into a world of deceit and where evil remains unpunished. Without ever mentioning the atrocity that happened to Evelyn, he pushes the audience into realizing it alone, the same way Gittes does. Cautiously and meticulously he is destroying the American dream myth brick by brick. Leaving his audience with an enigmatic sentence. Polanski said about it, that it was actually a sort of riddle, something that would leave the viewer puzzled. His intention was that he wanted his movie to stick with the audience a little longer when they left the cinema. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”