© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Chinatown, despite being shot in color, is in many ways a classic film noir, combining a complex detective story plot with a general air of corruption and a darkly claustrophobic look and atmosphere. In many ways, the protagonist, J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is a paradigmatic film noir detective, willing to bend the rules but ultimately sincere in his quest for the truth. Similarly, the central female character, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), is at first glance the quintessential film noir femme fatale, seductive, but seemingly dangerous, largely because of her mysterious past. On the other hand, Chinatown differs from the classic film noir in its overt nostalgia and in its intensely self-conscious engagement with the legacy of its predecessors in the noir tradition. It thus quite clearly belongs in the category of neo-noir and is, in fact, the most important of all neo-noir films.
Despite its sometime brilliant use of color, Chinatown is in some ways even darker than the typical noir film. Gittes succeeds in solving the film’s central mystery, but it really does him no good, and he is no match for the mighty forces that are arrayed against him, powerless to prevent the realization of the complex, evil plot that his investigation uncovers. Ultimately, the film becomes a confrontation between Gittes as a lone, ultimately righteous individual, and capitalist modernization, embodied in the central villain, Noah Cross (played by film noir pioneer John Huston), but also pictured as an inexorable historical force. This force is far too much for Gittes, whose final helplessness and even ridiculousness are emphasized in the way he goes through so much of the film with a huge, almost comical, bandage on his nose after a thug (played by Polanski) slits one of his nostrils open with a knife, with the memorable warning that nosey people have a tendency to lose their noses.
Chinatown is set in 1937 and employs exquisite period detail to create an old-fashioned feel, though it does so in an oddly indeterminate way that makes the film feel like it could have been set at any time from beginning of the 1930s through the end of the 1940s. In addition, it is based on actual Los Angeles water scandals dating back to the first decade of this century. Yet Chinatown is very much a film of the 1970s, both in its underlying ecological concerns and in its cynicism about the possibility of opposing the ruthless and greedy quest for profit that constitutes the context of the film. As Ryan and Kellner note, the film was at the center of a revival in film noir in the mid-1970s, a revival they relate to “the emerging reality of political liberalism—that it was powerless against the entrenched economic power blocs of the country” (83). One of the most highly praised films of the 1970s, Chinatown garnered eleven Academy Award nominations but won only one Oscar, for Robert Towne’s screenplay.
Gittes begins the main part of the film as an unwitting dupe, hired by a woman posing as Evelyn Mulwray to gather evidence of an extramarital affair on the part of Evelyn’s husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer of the Los Angeles city water system. This evidence (which itself turns out to be misleading) is then leaked to the press in an attempt to discredit Mulwray, who is involved in a bitter political battle because of his opposition to the construction of a new dam near the city. Soon afterward, Mulwray is murdered, while the young woman with whom Gittes had spotted, apparently in flagrante,disappears. Gittes is meanwhile hired by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to find out what happened to her husband, then is subsequently retained by Cross (Evelyn’s father and Hollis Mulwray’s former business partner) to find the missing woman, supposedly so that Cross can help her out of deference to Mulwray’s affection for her.
Gittes’s subsequent investigation reveals that Mulwray had been killed by Cross because Mulwray, Cross’s former partner, had discovered, and opposed, an intricate scheme involving the city’s water system. Indeed, Gittes, who becomes romantically involved with Evelyn, is able to ascertain the exact nature of the plot, which is part of a complex scheme to ensure that the proposed dam will be built. The perpetrators of this scheme, led by Cross, have meanwhile plotted to acquire large amounts of land in a valley north of the city. They then plan to divert the water made available by the new dam to the irrigation of this valley, vastly increasing the value of the land there and leading to huge profits for themselves at the expense of the taxpayers of Los Angeles. Gittes also discovers (in his famous my daughter … my sister … my daughter … my sister interrogation of Evelyn) that the missing woman, Katherine, is both the daughter and the sister of Evelyn Mulwray, the product of an earlier incestuous liaison between Cross and the then-teenaged Evelyn.
Through most of the film, Chinatown itself functions simply as a (somewhat Orientalist) metaphor for mystery and corruption, in way that is quite consistent with the Orientalism of classic film noir. Gittes’s investigation then culminates in the only scene of the film that actually occurs in Chinatown, a final confrontation involving most of the final characters. In this scene, it becomes clear that Gittes’s investigation will go for naught because the wealthy Cross “owns the police.” Cross openly flaunts this fact in front of a helpless Gittes. Meanwhile, when Evelyn tries to escape with Katherine to keep her away from Cross, the police shoot and kill Evelyn. In the end, police lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), a former colleague of Gittes in the L. A. police department, sends Gittes home and advises him to forget the entire matter. Cross, with the power of his immense wealth behind him, is left to do as he will, with Katherine, the taxpayers’ money, the L. A. water supply, and anything else he wants.
This cynical ending would be very much at home in classic film noir—and in fact goes beyond what would really be possible in the era of the Production Code. Indeed, I think one could argue that the cynicism of Chinatown, despite the vividness of the 1930s setting, has a very 1970s flavor to it. Much American cinema of that decade, heavily influenced by the recent experience of Vietnam and Watergate, shows a very similar cynicism. In some ways, in fact, Chinatown shows a surprising amount of restraint and does not actually show very much that would not have passed the Code, even though it does stipulate some things, such as the incest between Cross and Evelyn, that the Code would have never allowed. One reason for this restraint is probably that Chinatown consistently and self-consciously seeks to be as reminiscent of classic film noir as possible, while still appealing to a 1970s audience. This intent, in fact, is foregrounded from the very beginning, as the opening credits role in a retro font that looks (despite the yellow letters) that looks very much like something from a classic noir film, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s dreamy title music, which also has a very noir feel—and which will run through the entire film as a recurrent theme in the soundtrack.
After these credits, the first actual visual of the film is a black-and-white still photograph of a man and woman apparently having sex, though in point of fact the sex is really just implied, with no graphic details shown. In a sense, then, this photograph encapsulates one of the central strategies of this film, suggesting material that could not have been included in a classic noir, but only suggesting it. Meanwhile, we quickly learn that this photo has been taken by Gittes after being hired by one “Curly” (Burt Young) to shadow his wife (the woman in the photo), whom Curly suspects of having an affair. This photo is one of a series that confirms this suspicion, to which Curly responds with considerable agitation, nearly wrecking the new Venetian blinds that Gittes has just had installed in his office. Curly’s reaction thus calls attention to these blinds, which (knowledgeable viewers would know) are a key part of the iconography of the film as a participant in the noir tradition. Indeed, Venetian blinds will at several points in the film cast distinctive shadow patterns inside Gittes’ offices, such patterns being perhaps the single most recognizable visual image in all of film noir.
Curly’s familial predicament, as it turns out, has nothing to do with the main plot of the film, but this initial scene does establish Gittes as the type of low-rent private detective who takes on such tawdry assignments, helping to make clear his status as the kind of unheroic protagonist so often found in film noir. At the same time, Gittes seems to have a fairly successful practice, with a secretary and at least two “operatives” working in his employ. So it is not entirely far-fetched when Curly is immediately succeeded by a much more upscale client in the apparent Evelyn Mulwray, who comes to hire Gittes for what is apparently a similar mission to the one for which Curly hired him: shadowing her “husband. In retrospect, though, it eventually becomes clear that this faux Evelyn has been sent to Gittes precisely because his somewhat shady reputation makes him an ideal candidate for the kind of scheme that is being set in motion here. Thus, when Gittes does indeed get and deliver what appear to be compromising photos of Mulwray with a young woman, Gittes finds himself in hot water when the photos are immediately published in the newspaper in an attempt to discredit Mulwray.
Gittes, though, is not a man who takes well to being scammed, so this set-up inspires him to investigate further, especially after Mulwray turns up dead soon afterward. Gittes subsequently stumbles upon Cross’s complex intrigue, ultimately confronting Cross near the end of the film. Genuinely unable to grasp why the ultra-wealthy Cross would go to so much trouble to make even more money, Gittes asks him how much wealth he actually has, and Cross says he has no idea, but agrees that he certainly has much more than $10 million. Then Gittes gets right to the heart of the matter of capitalist greed. “Why are you doing it?” he asks. “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” “The future, Mr. Gittes,” declares Cross. “The future!” This answer, though vague, seems reasonably straightforward. It suggests that Cross wants to accumulate enough wealth that he will be prepared for whatever the future brings; it also suggests that he wants enough wealth to be able to have a say in shaping the direction of that future.
This interpretation, though, is not fully satisfactory, because it does not explain just why Cross is so determined to have a hand in the future. After all, he has shown no signs of altruism throughout the film, and we have no reason to believe that he wants to exert control over Los Angeles for the benefit of its people. Yet he himself is an old man who does not appear to have all that much of a future left, even though he is still quite formidable and who still has “a few teeth in my head” as he puts it. Moreover, Gittes’ question still stands: in what way will controlling the future of Los Angeles make Cross’s life any better than it already is? And how much control does he want, given the power he already has?
The answer, of course is that Cross simply wants power for the sake of power, a drive that seems central to his psychology. Indeed, the drive to dominate and control others seems central to all of his major life decisions, including his decision to engage in incest with his teenage daughter, establishing a sexual relationship in which all the power is his. As far as we can tell from the film, he does not appear to be engaged in that sort of relationship with his other daughter (and granddaughter), Katherine, though it is clear that he will go to any extreme to maintain control over her. One could even argue that his killing of Mulwray was ultimately a reaction to Mulwray’s refusal to be controlled as much as an attempt to prevent him from revealing Cross’s water scheme. Indeed, Cross’s lust for power and control is so extreme as to be clearly pathological, which would put him very much in the tradition of the pathological villains who inhabit much of film noir.
However, Cross is most decidedly not in the tradition of film noir psychos such as Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). He is calm, calculated, and coldly rational. He is thus more in the tradition of film noir psychos such as Horace Vendig in Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless or Smith Ohlrig in Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949). In short, his pathological behavior is not simply psychological, in a realistic sense, but more broadly political, in an allegorical sense. That is, Cross’s overriding thirst for power and for more and more wealth can be seen, not as a mental illness, but as a perfectly logical consequence of the capitalist system for which he serves as a sort of allegorical standard-bearer. Viewed this way, Cross feels he must dominate and control, that he must own, anything and everything (and everyone) with which (or whom) he comes into contact because the capitalist system that produced him is driven by an uncompromising mania for accumulation that can never be satisfied.
The governing process here is the one that the French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser has referred to as “interpellation,” a legal term that means to be called to appear before a judge but which Althusser uses to mean the process through which an individual is made who they are by the ideological forces with which they come into contact. What is crucial here is the notion that individuals do not exist prior to their encounters with ideology (which then influences them). Rather, they are literally created as subjects (i.e. the structures of thinking that constitute their minds are created) by the dominant ideology (e.g., the ideology of capitalism) that surrounds them. By definition, then, this ideology seems natural; it appears to be mere common sense, rather than a specific agenda-driven mode of thought. For Althusser, we do not form our attitudes so much as they form us, and “the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (Althusser 171).
The bourgeois ideology of capitalism is quite flexible, of course, so it can produce a wide variety of individual subjects, similar only in their adherence to certain basic capitalist principles, such as a bias toward belief in the primacy of the individual. Cross is an example of the extreme capitalist who has been produced by individualist ideology in its most vicious and ruthless form. It should be noted, however, that everyone else in the film is a product, in one way or another, of this same ideology. Gittes, the private detective, is a particularly interesting example, because the private detective has often been seen as a paradigm of American individualism. Private detective characters in American culture, in their various ways, tend to be loners who believe in doing things their own way, often in opposition to the perceived norms of society. Gittes might be less tough and incorruptible than Sam Spade and he might be less contemplative than Philip Marlowe, viewing the world from less ironic distance. But he clearly belongs in the company of figures such as Spade and Marlowe in the way he approaches the world with a sense that he stands apart from everyone else in it.
In Chinatown, of course, there is an irony in this depiction due to the fact that Gittes is considerably less admirable (or formidable) than Marlowe or Spade. In the course of the film, for example, Gittes has several violent confrontations with various antagonists, almost all of whom get the better of him. About the only people he seems to get the better of in physical fights are a crippled farmer on crutches and a disoriented Evelyn, whom he slaps around in an attempt to get a straight story out of her concerning her complex relationship with her sister/daughter Katherine.
Meanwhile, though Gittes does eventually get to the heart of the film’s central mystery, he does not seem to be a particularly brilliant detective. About the closest he comes to cleverness is the collection of cheap pocket watches that he carries in his car so that he can place them under the wheels of parked cars to be crushed (and thus stopped) when the cars drive off, thus revealing the times of their departure. But this device is clearly less remarkable than the James Bond–like gun dispenser that Philip Marlowe has in his car in The Big Sleep—not to mention the fact that it is probably not very reliable and is certainly no substitute for actual surveillance. In addition, much of Gittes’ work is also remarkably unexciting, bordering on the tedious and routine. In short, while the film consistently asks viewers to compare its representation of Gittes with those of the private detectives of the hard-boiled tradition, it also creates an ironic tension that makes Gittes at least partly a parody of those earlier detectives, or at least a demythologized, postmodern version of them.
Gittes begins his investigation of Mulwray, for example, by attending a public meeting at which a speaker drones on about the status of Los Angeles as a desert community that depends on outside water for its survival. This bit of exposition might be helpful to some viewers of the film in explaining why water seems so important in the film, but it certainly comes as news to no one in the audience, which is presumably composed of people who are already familiar with Los Angeles. Gittes himself yawns widely and starts to read an article in a racing newspaper about the famous horse Sea Biscuit as the speaker goes on and on with his presentation, urging the building of a new dam. Mulwray, though, does seem to get Gittes’ attention when he then speaks against the project, arguing that the proposed dam would be unsafe and prone to collapse.
Gittes is additionally intrigued when a farmer drives his flock of sheep into the meeting hall to protest the theft of water from the valley where he raises these sheep, setting up a structural opposition between common people (like the farmer) and L.A.’s power elite that will run throughout the film. Gittes then gets more and more puzzled as he follows Mulwray, who seems to be pursuing some sort of investigation of his own, rather than an extramarital affair. Gittes does, though, eventually get pictures of Mulwray with Katherine, misconstruing these as evidence of such an affair. The opposition between common people and the wealthy elite is then furthered when he discovers, while getting a shave in a barber shop, that the pictures have made their way into the newspaper, Gittes is getting a shave in a barbershop. In response to these pictures, another, rather distinguished-looking, patron suggests that Gittes has “a hell of a way to make a living.” Learning that the man is a mortgage banker, Gittes becomes angry at the man’s sense of moral superiority. “Tell me,” Gittes says, “did you foreclose on many families this week?” When the man suggests that Gittes had the photos published in the paper in order to garner publicity for himself, Gittes becomes particularly incensed, confronting the man and yelling that he actually tries to help people with his work: “I don’t kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do.”
This encounter, among other things, provides a reminder of the Depression-era setting of the film, when mortgage foreclosures were particularly common and when banks had a particularly negative reputation for preying upon the poor. This setting, of course, makes Cross’s schemes to accumulate more and more wealth all the more obscene, while this scene with the banker reminds us that what Cross is doing is not unique but quite typical of the way business is done in the capitalist world. Meanwhile, Gittes’ angry confrontation with the banker helps to set him up as a sort of champion of the common people, a man whose heart is in the right place despite his own possibly problematic ethics in some cases. This scene also sets up the later opposition between Gittes and Cross, helping to make clear that the kind of predatory capitalism represented by Cross (and the banker) is precisely the sort of the thing that infuriates the struggling small businessman Gittes, whose ethics turn out to be far superior to those of Cross and the banker, despite the fact that they are respected leaders of a society in which Gittes is considered a somewhat shady character because of his occupation.
This same point is also made in Gittes confrontation with the gangsterish thug played by Polanski, who accosts Gittes in the company of Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jensen), the chief of security for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. That Mulvihill and Polanski’s unnamed character seem to be working as a team makes it quite clear that, in the world of the film, there is little distinction between official power (as represented by Mulvihill) and gangsterism (as represented by Polanski’s character). In any case, both Mulvihill and the gangster are really working for Cross, who essentially controls the Water and Power Department as part of what is little more than an organized crime syndicate, wrapped in the cloak of respectability afforded by Cross’s extreme wealth.
Chinatown is a film with many ironies and much room for interpretation, but Constantine Verevis when he calls the filma “damning critique of capitalism” (315). Whatever else it is, Chinatown makes quite clear its critical stance with regard to the modern capitalist system and the depths of greed and corruption that it inspires. Otherwise, though, different critics have seen the film in different ways. Richard Jameson, for example, believes that Chinatown stands apart from the nostalgia of most neo-noir films and is in fact a straight film noir that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the noir cycle. For him, the film “crawls with an authenticity far beyond production department research.” This authenticity, for Jameson, inheres in the atmosphere of the film, in its settings, and in the figure of Gittes. But, more than anything, it resides in the character of Evelyn, whom Jameson sees as the “incarnation of the eminently untrustworthy, irresistibly alluring film noir female.” Indeed, Jameson waxes absolutely poetic on the power of this imminently fascinating character, whom he finds to be
“incessantly surprising, compelling, troubling. She always seems to be listening for a signal beyond the range of normal hearing-in the tones of the person she’s speaking with, in a space beyond the edge of the frame, maybe somewhere within herself. In her plight, the still-figurative incestuousness of Gumshoe becomes overt. A quintessential film noir character, she carries the sign of her fatal imperfection on her own person, in the form of a black flaw in the green of her iris” (205).
On the other hand, one could argue that the flaw in Evelyn’s Iris, to which the film calls explicit attention, is perhaps a tad too clever (and perhaps intentionally so) as a sign of her personal imperfections, suggesting a film that is more self-consciously playful than Jameson here suggests. This idea then points toward a very different conception of the film—this one by Fredric Jameson—that has, in fact, been one of the most influential of all ways of thinking about films such as Chinatown. For Fredric Jameson, Chinatown is not an authentic noir film at all; it is a postmodern pastiche of a noir film, intensely aware that it is replicating a style and a mode of filmmaking from an earlier era. Indeed, Chinatown is one of Jameson’s key examples of the “nostalgia film,” which he sees as one of the most representative forms taken by postmodern culture. Jameson thus argues that all of the period detail in Chinatown represents an “aesthetic colonization” of the 1930s (19). Moreover, for Jameson, Chinatown and other neo-noir films (he specifically mentions Body Heat) are key examples of what he calls the “nostalgia film,” in which “our awareness of the preexistence of other versions … is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure” (20).
In general, I think that Fredric, rather than Richard, Jameson, better captures the essential quality of Chinatown, which is so self-conscious in its look back on the noir tradition that it is clearly separated from that tradition by that very fact. Indeed, as Todd Erickson points out, it would not literally be possible to create a genuine film noir by the 1970s, if only because of this separation in time. Erickson argues that
“It would be impossible to recreate the noir film of the forties and fifties within the context of the contemporary American cinema because our perspective of that era is one that is shaped by the burden of experience and hindsight. The ‘period’ remakes of the seventies as well as Chinatown illustrate this point, for even if they succeed in capturing the authentic narrative voice, or sensibility of the archetypal film noir, (which regrettably few manage to do), they are not, and never can be, the same” (321–22).
Further, Erickson goes on to note that
“A film could be shot today with black-and-white film stock in the Academy aperture and it could be designed to look like the urban milieu of the forties; the buildings, the automobiles, the clothing, etc.; yet, you could not recreate the awareness and sensitivity to that era’s popular culture that a filmmaker living and experiencing life in that era did” (322).
Even Richard Jameson acknowledges that Chinatown comes close to “winking at the audience” by having Gittes go through half the movie with that bandage on his nose (205). And there is a great deal of visual irony in this bandage. Granted, Marlowe dons an even bigger bandage at the end of Murder, My Sweet, but only for a few minutes of runtime and only for segments that are actually outside the main plot of the film. Gittes, though, wears his bandage through the heart of his main investigation in Chinatown. There are also other aspects of Chinatown that seem designed to mark the film as an ironic riff on film noir, rather than a genuine noir. For example, Gittes’ repeated slapping of Evelyn in the famous “my daughter … my sister” routine is obviously problematic from a twenty-first-century perspective, but otherwise that scene reads almost like slapstick comedy—a fact that all the slapping was perhaps meant to indicate.
Chinatown is clearly a meticulously constructed work of cinematic art, so it is fair to assume that such elements are included as a sort of acknowledgement that the film cannot quite be an authentic film noir. Nevertheless, it is probably also the case that the authenticity of Chinatown as a noir film will strongly depend upon the point of view of the individual viewer. While I believe that the film intends to establish an ironic distance between itself and the original noir cycle (and that such a distance would of necessity exist even if the film did not intend it), the film also includes so many elements of noir that it is perfectly possible to see it as authentic, especially as many noir films contain their own rather ironic ingredients. In any case, the film stands as one of the key examples of 1970s American cinema.
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press, 1971.
Eaton, Michael. Chinatown. British Film Institute, 1997.
Erickson, Todd. “Kill Me Again: Movement Becomes Genre.” 307–330.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.
Jameson, Richard. “Son of Noir.” Film Noir Reader 2. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 197–206.
Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Indiana University Press, 1988.
Verevis, Constantine. “Through the Past Darkly: Noir Remakes of the 1980s.” Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 307–322.
 This discussion will focus on the film itself. For a book-length study of the film that is particularly good on the background and production of the film, see Eaton.
 Sea Biscuit is one of the most famous race horses of all time. A small horse who nevertheless rose to the top, he became a hugely popular figure in Depression-era America, where his racing wins were seen as victories for the little guy. The evocation of Sea Biscuit in this scene helps both to establish the period setting and to identify Gittes as a similar “little guy” fighting against the odds.
 Gumshoe is a 1971 neo-noir film directed by Stephen Frears. Partly comic, it is unquestionably less authentic as a noir film than is Chinatown, so the comparison might have influenced Richard Jameson’s interpretation of the latter.