The black and white photographs stand in for the movie that follows. We begin in a black and white world, a world familiar to viewers of classic detective thrillers. The photographs indicate that we have entered a different visual and moral universe. This movie will show us things the 1940s movies could not even suggest; Chinatown repeatedly alludes to The Big Sleep, Hawks’s 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel. The plot of The Big Sleep is famously incomprehensible, in part because the Production Code made it impossible to even hint at the portions of the novel that deal with homosexuality and a lending library of pornographic books.
Gittes resembles Phillip Marlowe, the detective in the Chandler novels and the movies based on them. Like Marlowe, Gittes insults people; tangles with the police; gets beaten up; traverses the Los Angeles basin in an automobile; moves up and down the social ladder. He even uncovers some version of the truth. Gittes is different in crucial ways, however. Marlowe has a highly developed code of ethics which includes a policy against doing marital work. Marital work, which largely means providing (or manufacturing) evidence of adultery, is Gittes’s ‘metier’. Gittes is not above manipulating clients (or sleeping with them). Mostly, Gittes thinks he’s smarter than he is. He acts like a movie detective but he turns out to be a movie detective who can’t stage manage his own case well enough to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice.
This period thriller has two parallel plots: one about public corruption, one about private corruption. The two plots intersect in the character of Noah Cross, played by John Huston, whose performance is one of the terrifying pleasures of Chinatown. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Huston was one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. His directorial debut, the 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, is the archetypal noir detective thriller. The plot of The Maltese Falcon, like the plot of Chinatown, is set in motion when a woman asks a detective to follow a man. In both movies, the woman is playing a part.
The events of the public corruption plot are loosely based on the machinations undertaken by politicians and businessmen in the early twentieth century to secure the water that would make it possible for Los Angeles to expand, to supplant San Francisco as the major city on the West Coast, and to make wealthy capitalists even wealthier, particularly if they invested in Southern California real estate. Horace Mulwray is loosely modelled on William Mulholland, Los Angeles’s legendary superintendent of water. Mulholland became superintendent in 1887 when the city’s water was managed by a private company under a lease agreement that expired in 1902. His career as an employee in the city’s department of Water and Power ended in 1929, after a dam collapsed, killing over 400 people. In between, he is credited with (or blamed for) inventing modern Los Angeles. He was instrumental in securing the rights to Owens River Water in 1905. He oversaw the construction of the aqueduct which opened in 1913 and carries water 233 miles, from the Owens Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, south to Los Angeles.
Chinatown is often credited with teaching nonCalifornians about the history and mythology of the Los Angeles water wars. Joan Didion refers to Chinatown when she writes about the ‘The false droughts and artful title transactions that brought Northern California water south’. 2 Very early in her biography of her grandfather, Catherine Mulholland attempts to settle scores with ‘uninformed’ outsiders who see ‘One fictional and melodramatic movie … as a kind of documentary work on the history of Los Angeles’ or ‘a clever parable on the greed and ambition of an upstart town’. 3 Abraham Hoffman begins his history of the controversy over Owen Valley Water with a presumably apocryphal anecdote about an employee at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who claims that the movie is ‘totally inaccurate’ because ‘There was never any incest involved’. 4
Incest and rape are, of course, at the centre of the private corruption plot. The horror of these crimes is revealed late in the movie, when we learn that Horace’s alleged girlfriend is actually his wife’s sister/daughter. Cross’s rape of his daughter, and his probable future rape of his daughter/granddaughter, reads as a metaphor for other kinds of rape, particularly the rape of the land. Read through the lens of Los Angeles mythology, incest functions as a metaphor for dangerously intimate relationships between business, government, and criminal activity, relationships that make it possible for real estate development to supersede all other priorities.
Chinatown is often cited as one of the first neonoir films: one of a series or films that translates the visual style and moral universe of 1940s noir to a world filmed in colour; a world where the sex, violence, and systemic corruption implicit in earlier noir films can be represented explicitly. Since 1974, filmmakers have repeatedly mined Robert Towne’s screenplay and Polanski’s film for plot and visual imagery. The most flagrant imitation is the live action meets animation thriller comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1989). In Noah Cross’s place, Roger Rabbit gives us a cartoon villain who melts like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. The film ends with cloying song and dance number performed by cartoon characters. More typical is L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), which replaces moral ambiguity with self-righteousness. L.A. Confidential begins with crowd pleasing violence and ends with a villain shot in the back in the name of justice. These films fail to confront audiences with the terrifying inevitabilities of a Sophoclean tragedy, or the moral emptiness of a man like Noah Cross.
If Chinatown could not have been made a few years earlier, it is just as difficult to imagine it being made more than a few years later. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Ronald Reagan reignited the market for stories that made Americans feel good about themselves. Incest lost some of its power to shock. Movie studios became less inclined to grant directorial control to filmmakers that might depress audiences, saving the big bucks for films like the first Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones trilogy. Hollywood may be still haunted by Chinatown, but finds it preferable to market happy endings.
1. Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930–1934, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 343–5.
2. Joan Didion, ‘Times Mirror Square’, in After Henry, New York, Simon and Shuster, 1992, pp. 222–23.
3. Catherine Mulholland, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000, p. 4. Catherine Mulholland’s biography, which treats Mulholland as a hero, makes a point of responding to the many aspersions cast on her grandfather’s life work. It is, however, the most detailed account of his life.
4. Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy, College Station, TX, Texas A&M University Press, 1981, p. xiii. About the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, see also William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Paramount Pictures. Director: Roman Polanski. Producer: Robert Evans. Screenwriters: Robert Towne, Roman Polanski (uncredited). Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo. Editor: Sam O. Steen. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jake Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross).]
John G. Cawelti, ‘Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Film’, in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader III, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2003, pp. 227–45.
Paul Cronin (ed.), Roman Polanski Interviews, Jackson, MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, New York, Metropolitan Books, 1998.
James Morrison, Roman Polanski, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57–68.
John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska (eds), The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces of the World, London, Wallflower Press, 2006.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.