When Jake Gittes, the lead character in the 1974 film noir classic “Chinatown,” was a beat cop in the Chinatown neighborhood of 1930s Los Angeles, his motto was to do “as little as possible.” Crime was rampant there and it was tough for the cops to know who were the good guys and who weren’t. So they decided the best course of action was to look the other way, to turn a blind eye to the corruption all around them.
After leaving the police force, Gittes developed a lucrative business doing the exact opposite – looking too much. As a matrimonial detective, he spies on cheating spouses and helps catch them in the act. The pay is good and provides Gittes with a spiffy office, nice suits and an attractive apartment.
When a woman named Evelyn Mulwray comes into his office asking Gittes to check up on her husband, it seems like a routine enough case – even though she’s married to Hollis Mulwray, the city’s prominent water commissioner, who is in the news a lot because he’s fighting a proposal to build a dam designed to increase the city’s water supply during a drought. Gittes does indeed discover Hollis out with a sweet young blonde, gets some photos and the case is closed. Or so Gittes thinks.
The slick detective’s case falls apart when a woman shows up at Gittes office claiming she’s the real Evelyn Mulwray, and that she never hired him to spy on her husband. Realizing he’s been conned by someone out to embarrass the water commissioner, Gittes digs deeper. But he hits a big stumbling block when Hollis Mulwray’s body is dragged from the ocean, a drowning victim.
In the 34 years since “Chinatown” premiered, the praise for this thriller has only gotten stronger and stronger – with good reason. “Chinatown” was hailed in its day as a fine example of a genre that once thrived in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, the detective thriller or film noir; actors like Alan Ladd and Humphrey Bogart played hard-nosed detectives who liked cheap dames and even cheaper whiskey, and dug deep into the dark side of the American dream. “Chinatown” came out at an ideal time, just a few months before President Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace over the Watergate case, and “Chinatown” was seen by many critics as a reflection of the growing public cynicism about our most esteemed public institutions in the wake of that political scandal.
Today, “Chinatown” can be seen as more than just a commentary on Watergate. It now seems a lot more universal – an unflinching look at how the foundations of a city can be built on an astonishing level of greed and corruption, committed by the people with the greatest asset: money, and plenty of it. But what’s also unique about “Chinatown” is that Gittes initially thinks all signs in the Hollis Mulwray scandal point to just that – greed and big money. But as he digs deeper, you’re not quite sure that’s true.
Gittes comes to believe that the forces pushing for the dam wanted to embarrass and publicly disgrace Hollis Mulwray, and probably got desperate enough to eliminate his opposition altogether by killing him. The local police chief, Lou Escobar – who used to work with Gittes in Chinatown – has a different theory, and is suspicious of the real Evelyn Mulwray, wondering whether she was a jealous woman who murdered her husband after she caught him fooling around. Gittes thinks Evelyn is probably innocent, although he too has his suspicions about her.
Nevertheless, Gittes thinks the trail leads to some orange groves in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where the farmers angrily claim thugs have been sabotaging their wells and destroying their crops in a vicious effort to get them to sell their land, and cheap.
Could it be that if the dam project goes through and brings more water to the Los Angeles valley, that farm land could become more expensive for resale to developers hoping to build new homes as the city grows? Watch “Chinatown” and you’ll get an eerie sense of déj<0x00E0> vu as they discuss inflated land deals – a parallel to the recent rapid growth in Central Florida.
“Chinatown,” is a complex, multi-layered film that, by the end, will have you wanting to go back and watch it again and see how earlier scenes fit in with the conclusion – kind of like “The Sixth Sense,” only without any ghosts.
“Chinatown” is also stunning in another sense. Set in the late 1930s, it presents Los Angeles as a cozy little city, clean and pleasant, free of the smog and crime and overcrowding and gang wars and traffic congestion that would plague it in future years. The story is filmed in bright, sunny colors – Gittes spends much of his time during the day, in a city where rain never falls and it looks like a tropical paradise. It’s only much later into the story, as Gittes begins to get a clearer vision of what he’s confronting, when it becomes clear that even the most visually appealing city can have plenty of grime, sleaze and dishonesty lurking quietly below the sunny exterior.
The film was the culmination of several great talents coming together. It was the brainchild of screenwriter Robert Towne, who worked on the scripts for “Bonnie And Clyde” and “The Godfather,” was nominated for Academy Awards for “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo,” and actually won the award for “Chinatown.” Producer Robert Evans hired director Roman Polanski – the two had worked together on 1968’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby” – and it’s generally considered to be the Polish-born director’s best movie, even though he was nominated for best director in 1974 and lost (to Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather Part II”) and did win in 2002 for “The Pianist.”
The cast is an example of great Hollywood talent at its best. Jack Nicholson had one of his best roles ever as Gittes, the smart detective who has no blessed clue how far in over his head he is..
Faye Dunaway is a great femme fatale as Evelyn, and manages to make her mysterious, alluring and painfully tragic at the same time. John Huston steals a few scenes as Noah Cross, a filthy rich businessman who is Evelyn’s father and used to be Hollis Mulwray’s business partner until they had a falling out, and who is instrumental in pushing the dam project. Even smaller roles are great: Perry Lopez as the suspicious police lieutenant Escobar, Burt Young as one of Gittes early clients, and Polanski himself as a thug who gets rough with Gittes when he goes snooping where he doesn’t belong – in what may be one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.
Nicholson and Towne would reunite in 1990 for “The Two Jakes,” a sequel that brought Nicholson back as Gittes, updating the story to the 1940s. It was written by Towne and directed by Nicholson himself. I think it’s an underrated movie, but not many others did. Unlike “Chinatown,” it’s s largely forgotten today.
“Chinatown” received 11 Academy Award nominations in 1974, including best picture, although it lost that prize to “The Godfather Part II.” The movie’s very cynical ending has been a source of controversy over the years, with some critics arguing whether it was overly harsh and pessimistic. I don’t think so. Watching the ending, you’ll be hard pressed not to think back on Gittes telling Evelyn that when he worked in Chinatown as a beat cop, he did “as little as possible” – in other words, looked the other way.
“Chinatown” is a devastating reminder of just how sordid we let our communities get when we all do the same thing, and look the other way.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..