Chinatown (1974)

Review composed May, 2002: featured in The New York Times on the Web, May 2002
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Chinatown, despite being an obvious homage to Chandler and Hammett, represents developments upon those writers’ themes. The problem with most modern noir is in its attempts to reproduce the same archetypes that fed the ‘30s and ‘40s melodramas. Chinatown on the other hand tells the story about a corrupt universe that Hammett desire to write about was compromised. James Ellroy too has developed upon the moral framework of Hammett and Chandler, but whilst Ellroy’s work plays up the inherent neurotic depths of the marginal people in this world of crime, Chinatown heads in explicitly social and political directions in a town that’s practically a wasteland of anything except homes for living, bars for drinking, and places of work; L.A., the world’s largest shanty town. Ellroy is baroque, cramming his pages full of bizarreness. Polanski is minimalist, suggestive. Evil oozes out of apparent calmness and banality. It’s testimony to the gifts of Polanski, working in close accord with his DOP John Alonzo, that they make the sunlight which kisses LA appear to be eating it. LA next to the sea seems on film to reek of fish, sweat, dust and seaweed.
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Chinatown works on the level of an immediate political metaphor for the Watergate era, but also encompasses a subtler, more universal level of classical, almost Biblical parable. The political aspect is fairly obvious. Instead of the criminals being outlying gangsters, gamblers, and hustlers with tenuous, perhaps insidious connections into the establishment that can tolerate them because they feed their vices, instead of vice being the property of outsiders, drifters, slum-dwellers or dead-eyed suburban losers and predators, here it flows directly from the most respectable man in town, who aims to be even more respectable. The future shall venerate Noah Cross’s name and regard him as a founding father.
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The cops are a mixture of the plain stupid and careful ignorance; Perry Lopez’s Lou Escobar represents pragmatic refusal, as opposed to Jake, to involve himself in deeper villainies; his edge-of-the-teeth barks at Jake after refusing to listen to his explanations are emblematic of every two-bit yes man and blind-eye turner in history. This is not to say he is not a moral man, which compounds his failure. Escobar is almost desperate in his attempts to block out the truth and ends up with a woman’s brains spread out across an LA street. Escobar is left disgusted amidst a shattered scene; nothing makes sense anymore. His freeing Jake at the end could be for a number of reasons. If he can get rid of the onlookers he’ll be free to concoct any explanation he wants. Jake, if he stays around, might just get someone to listen to his story, so Evelyn’s death will be a murder. Also, the horror of the moment might make Escobar feel sick with himself and see that he owes it to Jake, really “a favor”.
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On the other hand we have Jake. In classic detective fiction, the private eye is a loner, unfettered by police procedures or hierarchy, free to squirm his way through the underworld and dissect it. At the start of Chinatown we have Jake doing what a private dick does most (along with industrial theft cases); investigating marital infidelity. Here the private investigator really is a bottom-feeder, albeit curiously elegant and full of himself. For once, the processes and techniques of a P.I.’s work are shown with detail. Jake is a particularly complex mutation on the historical figure of the private eye. Like Phil Marlowe, he’s an ex-cop whose personal qualities single him out. Why Marlowe quit we have to guess. Jake explains in fractured points throughout the film exactly why he left, and it turns out to be for the same reasons he pursues the film’s case so thoroughly. Despite fulfilling a seedy role in society, he is a moral individual, perhaps a good working definition of a dictum that even great men can be no better than the reality about them.
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J.J.’s work allows him to a certain extent to retain his morality. Where he is powerless, where he is always powerless, is in taking on social structures. His initial failure in Chinatown is eventually reproduced on an even larger scale; just he can’t combat the structures of a village of immigrants, he certainly can’t muster the tools needed to deconstruct a conspiracy emanating from the central powers of the society he lives within. There is an implicit reconstruction of the pioneer myth; not so much different to the classical Western myth of the lone lawman and violent frontier, but an entirely different view of it. The world is built by pirates, exploiters, criminals, ruthless tyrants, and is then policed in follow-up, lawmen as moral janitors and social undertakers. The film's era, before the Second World War, is one of relentless Fascistic prerogative: FDR's visage appears in the town hall an impotent symbol presiding over a developing conspiracy.
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Jake is isolated, and as such has the power to root out causes and see things as they are, but it limits his power. Only an organized force like the police could take apart Cross’s empire, but of course that force is constructed to defend Cross and others like him; to protect property. The small everyday justices of a police force are undermined by their selective world-view. Jake and Lou Escobar are set up as doubles and opposites. They worked together in Chinatown, are almost strange friends, but are vitally divergent. Jake tried to interfere in some way with the carefully preserved separation of Chinatown’s institutions. Escobar on the other hand kept to his brief and also expounded the presumably racist ignorance of it, performing small-time, abusive acts of policing (arresting “Chinamen for spitting in the laundry” as Jake terms it, clarifying all his distaste for the institutions he has rejected) in substitution for intervention. The roles of the characters are predestined; paths of fate long since laid out and are followed through with tragic persistence. One change Polanski made to the script emphasized this; Jake notices a “flaw” in Evelyn’s left eye’s iris, precisely where the bullet will later come out.
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The more mythic qualities remove the tale out of specific circumstance and shows how it is an eternal story. Where the Watergate reading involves a specific failure of American philosophy, the Mythical one points out that the same blighted battles occur in every society. Good men sell their souls or fail, evil men prosper. The intent is clear in the messianic name of Noah Cross, the ultimate corruptor constructed from religious icons. Like a Biblical king he rules a ruined landscape, in a town rising from a poisonous desert, controlling the very life-blood of the town (its water) with his influence infecting that blood (salt water – “bad for the glass”). Like many Classical villains in Biblical, Grecian, and Shakespearean stories, Cross is incestuous; as with the Egyptian pharaohs, the imperial self-regard of the appointed tyrant leads inevitably to a wish to restrict the movement of blood within a select circle for the sake of purity and a decreased chance for the empire being diffused through marriage and division.
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This sense of aristocratic apartness, that Cross has clearly fostered in his life extends to the uncertainty of how Evelyn can’t say he raped her. This aspect of the film is possibly influenced by Norman Mailer’s An American Dream where the satanic industrialist Barney Kelly had also had sex with his daughter. This is why Cross’s specific desire is to snatch Katherine; his aim is an untouchable empire of the self; in Katherine, the Cross blood less diluted than it would be in any normal child. Like Oedipus Rex, which has often been called the first detective story, Chinatown involves an uncovering of events that reveals coinciding concerns of power and incest.
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The film pulls off the trick of presenting these aspects within the framework of pure genre. The film wryly introduces itself through a mode of nostalgia; the opening credits reproducing the style of the ‘30s crime flicks, bringing us into a story the uses all the elements of genre but for specifically modern purposes. Towne uses names carefully in the genre pattern, names you don’t forget; Noah Cross, Claude Mulvehill, Jasper Lamar Crabbe. The pseudo-nostalgia is undermined and reprocessed into examining how views of society, both in everyday perception and in the movies, have changed.
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Elements latent in the noir/crime genre – the connection between Establishment and Gangland, the threats of sexual perversity and total loss of moral governing – have become definite and deadly. The film is closer to Hammett than Chandler, despite the LA setting, because Hammett had dealt directly with the world he wrote about with and his vision of an adolescent American society filled with violence, corruption, and carefully divided yet entwined spheres of society, is still tangily relevant. The film’s aim then is partly to win the genre away from Hollywood and return it to its harder literary roots.
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In opposition to Cross, J.J. Gittes is identified by a name almost funny and almost an insult. Jake is particularly human. He spends much of the film being abused but thinks on his feet. He’s not two-fisted, he’s a gazelle more than a lion. He’s marked by his clean, cool manners but swings to being hot-headed and vulgar. When he crawls out of his wrecked car and is being poked with a crutch he flares up and despite being woozy and injured tries to punch the men around him. One of the film’s neatest pleasures is in watching Jake’s way of handling situations; annoying Mulwray’s secretary, sneaking into the reservoir with the deputy water commissioner’s card, tearing the page out of the land register, bullshitting his way into the retirement home. For once, the hero is as intelligent as the audience, quicker from experience. He’s a pragmatist and operates as a PI simply because it makes a good living from what he’s good at; his investigation skills, learnt in the police. Largely one feels he wanted to get as far away from the lie of the police force as possible, although Jake’s method of making money, spying on infidelities, could be a very down-market form of moral retribution. He figures hell, they deserve it.
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Jake’s motivations are fluid, gathering and changing with the development of the case. He doesn’t want Evelyn to drop her lawsuit because it could appear that she bought him off. He says, after his nose has been cut, still thinking he can master the situation, that he wants to “sue the sh!t out of them!”, a way of both making money and getting revenge. He wants to take Evelyn to the police even after sleeping with her when he thinks she’s holding Katherine captive. He’ll only go out of his way to actively protect her when he discovers the worst, deepest secret she’s hiding. His sense of justice is fixed but the forms of it he aims for shift. He’s equal parts responsible to truth and to his own ass. That he really is ultimately disgusted by the situation is made clear at the end; “He’s rich!” he shouts at Escobar to establish Cross’s obscenity. He defined the rule of Chinatown as to do “as little as possible”.
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It’s a rule he tries to keep to having learnt his lesson, but can’t. What happened in Chinatown? The following in-bed exchange:

EVELYN

Why was it – why was it bad luck?

JAKE

I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she
was hurt.

EVELYN

Cherchez la femme? (Pause) Was there a woman involved?

JAKE NODS: PHONE RINGS.
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And the event is repeating. Even the thread of fate will resolve events in the same place. Jake is haunted by his romanticism. On seeing Evelyn’s dead body he repeats his old commander’s dictum; “As little as possible”. Jake’s gab fails him precisely when he needs it, trying to hand the case over to the cops. His voice rises in pitch as he tries to make Escobar listen, but can’t. The problem isn't that nobody’s interested, but that they feel they can't win.
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