Los Angeles, 1937: Private Detective Jake Gittes specialises in marital work. Hired to discover whether Horace Mulwray – Chief Engineer at the City’s Department of Water and Power – is having an affair, Gittes finds himself enmeshed in a struggle over the future of Los Angeles. Mulwray opposes to the construction of a new dam. The local businessmen who support the dam claim the project will protect the city from drought and desert. Actually, they plan to divert the water to the San Fernando Valley, which they intend to annex, after they create an artificial drought and buy up distressed farmland from struggling citrus farmers. Their leader is Noah Cross, Mulwray’s former partner and the father of Mulwray’s wife. Attempting to find a murderer, foil a conspiracy, and protect two women, Gittes forgets the motto he lived by when he walked a beat in Chinatown: do ‘as little as possible’. Like the mythical hardboiled detectives on which his character is modelled, Gittes gets beaten up several times and shot at while tangling with the police and a few memorable villains, including a nose-slicer played by Roman Polanski. At the film’s conclusion we finally reach Chinatown, site of Gittes’s most haunting failure.
Chinatown is about corruption and greed; it’s about Manifest Destiny and the control of nature; it’s about voyeurism; it’s about the mythology Hollywood generates about its own past; it’s about enduring structures of tragedy; it’s about the movies. Borrowing from Oedipus Rex and film noir detective thrillers from the 1940s, Chinatown mythologises critical developments in the history of Los Angeles. It has become a master text for filmmakers who want to make period movies about corruption, Los Angeles, and real estate.
Despite continued resonance and many imitations, it is hard to imagine that Chinatown could have been made at any period in film history other than the moment when it was made. In the late 1960s and early 1970s American filmmakers were stretching the boundaries of what could be shown or implied on screen. When the rating system went into effect in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) acknowledged that the Production Code, which had policed the visual and moral universe of Classical Hollywood since 1934, had ceased to be enforceable.1 After 1968, American filmmakers were able to tell stories about official corruption and the failure of law enforcement. They were able to represent sex and violence onscreen more explicitly. They were able to deal with taboo topics like incest.
Although it is a period thriller, Chinatown reflects the political concerns of the early 1970s, notably the emerging environmental movement and the protest movements for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War. The arrival of more flexible boundaries of film narrative coincided with a cultural moment when narratives of official corruption and official conspiracy had exceptional resonance. Released less than two months before President Richard Nixon resigned, Chinatown was interpreted by critics of the time as an environmental movie and a conspiracy movie. The Vietnam War and Watergate had spawned a degree of mistrust for government and corporate America in particular that would have been inconceivable for middle of the road Americans during the patriotic 1940s or the conformist 1950s. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and US Senator and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 were widely interpreted as conspiracies in which powerful forces in government and the military might have participated. As Americans became aware of how the FBI meddled in protest movements, and of how the CIA meddled in affairs of other states, conspiracy theorising went mainstream.
The early 1970s was also a major auteurist period in Hollywood cinema. The French film critics associated with film journal Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s invented the auteur theory to explain how directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, working within the production line system of the Hollywood studios, managed to make genre pictures that bore the authorial stamp of their director. The concept of the auteur has also come to be associated with directors who manage to exert vertical control over their films’ productions, from script to final cut.
When several of the Cahiers critics, including Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, became the filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague (New Wave), they made low-budget, independent films, often inspired by Hollywood genre work. Like other French critics before them, they noticed a particular trend in American cinema from the 1940s and 50s: black and white films, often low budget, with a visual style that borrowed from German Expressionism, and a universe of moral ambiguity that was at odds with the moral clarity associated with Hollywood, which the French had dubbed film noir. They joined other influential European directors of the early 1960s – including Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni and Frederico Fellini and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman – in making films that embodied a directorial vision. In the 1970s, their American apostles – including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen – found themselves able to do the same thing, even when making big budget, star-driven, studio-financed productions. Roman Polanski, a filmmaker born in Paris, raised and educated in Poland, who has produced films in many countries, found this environment hospitable during his brief Hollywood career.
Chinatown was released one year before the publication of Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey argues that the pleasures available to spectators of Hollywood narrative film are founded on voyeurism. Few movies thematise voyuerism as explicitly as Chinatown. Detective Jake Gittes is always peeping in a window, taking illicit photographs, ignoring signs that say ‘Private’ or ‘No Trespassing’. At these moments the camera is often right behind Gittes’s shoulder, taking us where we are not supposed to go, showing us what we are not supposed to see. Nevertheless, Chinatown is about the failure of vision, about Jake’s failure to make sense of what he sees. In this, as in many other ways, Chinatown makes plain its debts to that primal detective story: Oedipus Rex.
After Chinatown’s credits have finished rolling, the first thing we see is a black and white photograph of a man and woman, outdoors, mostly clothed, having sex. As the camera pulls back, we see several other stills of the same couple, in a variety of sexual poses. The only sound is a series of groans that get louder with each photo. The photos are slightly out of focus and are shuffled quickly through someone’s hands. As viewers, we construct a story about sex acts captured on film, without the participants’ knowledge. The camera pulls back to reveal an office filmed in colour, a man who has hired a private detective to find out if his wife is having an affair and the detective whose photographs confirm the husband’s suspicions. The groans are not those of man enjoying the voyeuristic pleasure derived from homemade pornography; they are the groans of a cuckolded husband. The office furnishings, the detective’s suit, the photo of Franklin Roosevelt on the table by the liquor cabinet indicate that we, as viewers, have left 1974 behind and entered the 1930s.