Chinatown • Neo Noir

Greenscreening Series #34

June 30, 2023

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Chinatown (1974) directed by Roman Polanski



Private detective films in the days of Humphrey Bogart were in shadowy black and white, but Polanski updated the form for the Watergate era, shooting in colour in the sunny glare of Southern California. For his richly intricate screenplay, Robert Towne researched historic power struggles over the water supply to Los Angeles, creating in tycoon Noah Cross – played by old-guard film director John Huston – one of cinema’s most disturbing villains. The mystery plot has a classical simplicity, as Nicholson’s private eye Jake Gittes is drawn by his own curiosity into a situation in which he’s dangerously out of his depth, and where he endangers the very thing he sought to protect. - BFI

Find Chinatown via Reelgood

Why Chinatown?

Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything. - Noah Cross

As we discussed earlier in the series, Film Noir emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as a cinematic style characterized by its dark and pessimistic tone, intricate plots, and morally ambiguous characters. It often explored themes of crime, corruption, and the shadows lurking beneath the surface of society. Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) pays homage to this genre while subverting its expectations, making it a unique and memorable contribution to the noir canon.

Polanski is one of the most gifted filmmakers in the history of film, and Chinatown is perhaps his greatest film. It also represents the professional turning point in Polanski's extremely complicated life marked by tragedy and horrific crimes.

Robert Towne's script for Chinatown is regarded as one of the greatest screenplays ever written. The film weaves a complicated narrative - both in terms of its twists and turns, but also the psychological complexity of its characters and the impact of its themes. If The Godfather was an epic about America told through the Corleone family's struggle to hold onto power, Chinatown was a film noir about corruption and power threatening to destroy America during the 1970s.

Consider the context during which Chinatown was created and released, a period of unprecedented public mistrust in the US government at its highest levels. The United States had just endured years of unrest and protests over its involvement in Vietnam and tensions over the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1970s, the Watergate Scandal implicated President Richard Nixon and members of his administration in the cover-up of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, ultimately leading to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Chinatown used film noir to examine abuses of power and paint 1930s Los Angeles as a morally bankrupt wasteland. Corruption is rife, and any efforts to combat it are doomed.

The film is also one of the high points of star Jack Nicholson's career. In the 1970s, Nicholson was one of the kings of Hollywood, emerging from B-movies to become an icon of New Hollywood. His performance as Jake Gittes is one of the finest of his career.


The Greatest Screenplay Ever Written

One of the standout elements of Chinatown is its screenplay, penned by Robert Towne. Towne's writing expertly weaves together the themes of family, power, corruption, and sin, creating a narrative that is both engaging and thought-provoking. The script has been widely celebrated for its intricate plotting, nuanced characters, and sharp dialogue.

The dialogue throughout the film is on par with some of the best in film noir. It retains the same hard-boiled edge we saw in Double Indemnity while taking on a more modern and ironic tone. With the end of the Production Code, films could curse and use much more explicit innuendoes. This helps color the world Jake Gittes inhabits - a seedy world of spying on unfaithful spouses, tough-talking your way around the cops, and telling dirty jokes.

The film's iconic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," is perhaps the best distillation of the essence of film noir.


Chinatown is also known for its skillful use of a narrative twist - one of the most effective in film history. Without revealing any specific plot details, I can discuss the general nature of this twist and its effect on the story.

Chinatown follows Jake Gittes' investigation into the relationship between Hollis Mulwray and a young woman. Throughout the film, we see the investigation through Gittes' eyes, and we venture with him deeper into a web of intrigue and deception. As the plot thickens, Gittes continues learning about the complex relationships between the Mulwray family and the industrial tycoon Noah Cross.

The twist involves the revelation of a dual nature of a central character's identity, which completely contradicts everything we've been led to believe about the film's central characters, their motivations, and ultimately about the nature of truth within the story.

The twist elevates Chinatown beyond a simple detective tale and cements its status as a sophisticated exploration of human nature, sin, and societal corruption.

It's not one of those twists that you see coming, or that's foreshadowed in any obvious way in the script, but if you rewatch the film or read the screenplay, you'll see it lurking in the shadows, just beneath the surface.

It's worth noting that Towne and Polanski had significant creative disputes over the screenplay, and some of the greatest features of the script came from Polanski's rewrites. Polanski removed a pervasive voiceover from Gittes, effectively making the audience follow along with Gittes in his investigation. And Polanski changed what was a happier ending to the famously tragic ending, rewriting the scene in the days leading up to filming.



Jack Nicholson's portrayal of private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes is nothing short of iconic. Nicholson's natural charisma and ability to convey complex emotions made him a perfect fit for the morally ambiguous protagonist chafing at authority and haunted by a largely unspoken past.

Nicholson had emerged in New Hollywood as one of the leading male actors. His big break had been a supporting role in Easy Rider (1969) and his major leading breakthrough was Five Easy Pieces (1970). He was a hot commodity and Towne wrote the role of Jake Gittes with Nicholson in mind.

It bears mention that Hollywood has always been about showcasing good-looking, glamorous people in its films. What a choice to cover half of Nicholson's face with a bandage for most of the film!

The supporting cast, including Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray and John Huston as Noah Cross, delivered exceptional performances that add to the film's enduring quality.


One of the most interesting casting choices is Roman Polanski's cameo as a gangster who assaults Jack Nicholson's character, J.J. "Jake" Gittes, and cuts his nose.

The violence depicted in this scene is both shocking and significant, underscoring the darker aspects of the world in which the characters operate. The fact that it's the director putting himself into the story adds an interesting layer of psychological complexity to the film.

The scene is a turning point in the story, catalyzing further investigation and raising the stakes for the protagonist. This scene is a pivotal and intense moment in the film, as in many ways, it motivates Gittes to dive further into the investigation, and sets him on the remaining inevitable course of events.

Given Polanski's own personal history and the tragedy he has experienced (more about this later), his portrayal of a violent character contributes to the unsettling and morally ambiguous nature of the narrative. And thus Chinatown invites us into a conversation about the images on screen and the ongoing shifting meaning of those images as we learn more about the private lives of filmmakers.


Neo-Noir Style

Chinatown is remarkable for updating the film noir style to 1970s sensibilities, and cleverly subverting some of the genre's key conventions. One of the striking departures is the decision to set much of the film during the daytime and under the bright Los Angeles sunshine. This deliberate contrast with the typical nighttime and shadow-drenched aesthetic of classic film noir plays a significant role thematically.

In film noir, the darkness, shadows, and low-key lighting often serve as visual metaphors for the moral ambiguity and hidden truths that permeate the narrative. By subverting this convention, Chinatown challenges the audience's expectations and offers a unique perspective on the genre's themes.

The choice to set the film predominantly in daylight serves multiple purposes. First, it reflects the surface-level façade of normalcy and glamour associated with Los Angeles, particularly during the 1930s setting of the film. The sunny, picturesque exterior suggests a city that embodies the American Dream, yet beneath the seemingly idyllic surface lies a web of corruption, deceit, and moral decay.

Furthermore, the contrast between the sunny exterior and the dark secrets that unfold within the narrative underscores the themes of illusion and deception. Los Angeles, often referred to as the "City of Dreams," becomes a metaphorical representation of the illusory nature of power, wealth, and the pursuit of the American Dream. The bright sunlight becomes a metaphorical spotlight, revealing the flaws, moral compromises, and hidden agendas of the characters and the society they inhabit.

Additionally, the daytime setting contributes to a sense of vulnerability for the characters. In the darkness of night, characters in film noir can hide their secrets and operate under the cover of shadows. In Chinatown, the characters are exposed to scrutiny and judgment in the harsh light of day, heightening their vulnerability and emphasizing the power dynamics at play.

In another stylistic departure, where film noir of the 1950s was often more frank than other films in depicting violence and sexuality, Chinatown was a product of the New Hollywood, where the removal of Production Code restrictions allowed much more graphic violence and sexuality. The film's violence is often brutal and shocking (see the scene where Polanski slices Nicholson's nose, for example), reflecting the underlying brutality of the world it depicts. Additionally, the film treats sexuality primarily as a tool for manipulation and power, further emphasizing the pervasive sense of moral decay within the narrative.


Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

Upon its release, Chinatown was met with critical acclaim, with praise directed towards its screenplay, direction, performances, and overall craftsmanship. It garnered numerous award nominations and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne. However, it faced tough competition at the box office and didn't achieve remarkable commercial success initially.

The film also had the unfortunate timing of release during the year The Godfather Part II arrived and swept most of the major awards.

Over time, Chinatown has solidified its status as a classic. Its reputation has only grown stronger, and it continues to be studied and celebrated by film scholars and enthusiasts alike.

In the 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll, Chinatown tied for 146th, while it ranked 72nd in the Directors Poll.

Chinatown also reinvigorated the film noir for a new generation. As we'll see later in this series, many other filmmakers explored ways to bring the cynicism, darkness, and fatalism of film noir to new eras, settings, and even genres.

Roman Polanski

While Chinatown is a brilliant film that deserves study, we must reckon with the life of its director, Roman Polanski.

Polanski was born in 1933 in Paris and grew up in Poland. During World War II, his parents were sent to concentration camps, and his mother tragically perished at Auschwitz.

This horrifying experience undoubtedly left an indelible mark on Polanski's psyche and shaped his perspective on the world.

As he became a filmmaker, he immediately began exploring the darker aspects of human nature. His debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962), was a psychological drama concerning power dynamics and relational conflict between two men and one of their wives.

After gaining international acclaim for his debut, he followed it with a journey deeper towards horror, with the French film Repulsion (1965), which depicts a woman's descent into madness and paranoia as she believes her apartment is possessed by mysterious demonic forces. His debut film in Hollywood, Rosemary's Baby (1968), tells the story of a woman who becomes pregnant with a demonic child.

Rosemary's Baby was a huge hit with audiences and critics, and Polanski became one of the world's leading directors.

In 1969, his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by members of the Mansion Family cult. Tate was eight months pregnant at the time she was murdered.

It's impossible to understand just how devastating this loss was to Polanski's personal life. Professionally, Polanski took a few years off before returning to filmmaking.

Chinatown is considered one of Polanski's major works, if not his greatest film. It also represented a turning point in his life. In many ways, the film reflects how he artistically processed the tragic events of his life. The darkness and corruption of the world; the inability of a protagonist to correct it or protect loved ones from being destroyed by the evil in the world -- all of that is present and central to Chinatown.

And it's impossible to view the narrative of Chinatown without considering what happened in Polanski's life a few years later.

In 1977, Polanski was charged with sexual assault of a minor, a 13-year-old. He pleaded not guilty and later accepted a plea bargain, where in exchange for other charges being dismissed, he pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

The sentence was agreed to be the time Polanski had already served in jail (42 days) along with probation. However, word got to Polanski that the judge had changed his mind, and planned to sentence Polanski to 50 years in prison.

The day before sentencing, Polanski fled to London. He has never returned to the United States.

He has continued making films and has won numerous awards for directing, including the Academy Award for Best Director for 2002's The Pianist.

Polanski is the latest filmmaker in our series whose professional brilliance is accompanied by repugnant personal conduct - in this case, criminal conduct. His career and his art, like those of so many others, confront us as moviegoers with the question of what to do with the art of problematic artists.

Especially when that the subject of that artist's art gets uncomfortably close to life.

If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend reading The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson, which explores the making of Chinatown and dives into the culture of New Hollywood, and tells the incredibly detailed story of Polanski's personal spiral, the crime, and his flight from the US. Far from excusing the crime as a product of "times being different," Wasson illustrates it differently: since times were different, these sorts of crimes not only happened but almost always went unreported and unpunished.


What to Watch For

Chinatown employs several key symbols throughout the film that contribute to its thematic depth and storytelling. Here are a few notable symbols:

The title itself, Chinatown, represents more than just a physical location. It serves as a metaphorical symbol for a place of moral ambiguity, corruption, and the futility of trying to change a system that is fundamentally flawed. It embodies the theme of powerlessness in the face of larger forces.

Water is a recurring symbol in the film, often associated with the theme of control. The drought and water shortage in Los Angeles serve as a backdrop, highlighting the struggle for power and resources. Water is also used to represent the unstoppable flow of truth and knowledge, as well as the elusive nature of the truth itself.

The motif of eyes and vision reflect the idea of perception and the limitations of seeing and understanding the world. Characters' eyes are often covered, obscured, or injured, symbolizing their inability to fully grasp the truth or see beyond the surface. And glasses provide a key clue to Gittes' investigation.

The automobile serves as a symbol of mobility, power, and manipulation. It represents the characters' ability to navigate and control their surroundings. It's also a symbol of America and Americanness, loaded with meaning in American pop culture. In Chinatown, the car also becomes a site of violence and danger, reflecting the destructive nature of power and the corruption that lies beneath the glamorous facade of Los Angeles.

The bandage covering Jake Gittes' nose after the assault becomes a symbol of physical and emotional damage. It represents his vulnerability, the wounds he carries, and the pain he endures. The bandage serves as a reminder of the violence and corruption he has encountered and the personal sacrifices he makes in his pursuit of justice.

Learn More About Chinatown

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson. A phenomenal book about the making of Chinatown, its place in Hollywood history, and the long slow decline that followed.

Analysis of Chinatown by Norman Holland

Roger Ebert’s 1974 review of Chinatown and his Great Movies Essay on the film, 26 years later.

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