I doubt I have anything new to add to the reams of commentary already generated about this movie, but since I may just be launching into a survey of Polanski’s films, I feel I should lay down some kind of marker about this one. I had seen it before, but it was many years ago. Still, it’s amazing how much of it I either remembered or had absorbed from seeing clips and coverage of the film over the years. It was also interesting, considering how much Polanski’s satanic thrillers had just reminded me of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, how little this homage to film noir reminded me of Tourneur, whose Out of the Past is one of the absolute classics of the genre. If it reminded me of any of the classic film noir auteurs, it was probably Fritz Lang, although really it seems like a critique of classic film noir as much as an homage.
Well, maybe the cynical attitude actually comes from Billy Wilder. What’s fascinating about the detective, Jake Gittes, is not only that he’s a typical film noir chump who gets in over his head, but that he’s a mean little shit. It’s telling that he’s praised for exactly that quality by the villain of the piece, Noah Cross. Jake is Cross’s pawn from the beginning, even before Jake meets and is hired by him, and that’s part of what feels like a critique of classic film noir. Evelyn Mulray has the appearance and affect of a femme fatale, but that’s a head fake. Noah Cross is the real monster here, not the woman the detective falls for. That’s not the only thing Jake is wrong about either. Although he ends up exposing the real crimes going on, his understanding of what he’s exposing is wrong from the beginning too, and when he finally does understand what’s really going on, he’s completely powerless to do anything about it. He’s literally a tool from start to finish.
When I say that Jake is a mean little shit, I’m thinking primarily of his treatment of Evelyn, and you could say that he’s the homme fatal for her rather than she the femme fatale for him. One of the things that struck me about screenwriter Robert Towne’s comments about the film is that he considered her the one character who acts selflessly. (Although I have to say this seems to ignore her husband, who like her pays for his selflessness with his life.) Evelyn may be selfless, but she isn’t exactly innocent. Probably the most famous scene in the movie is the one where Jake beats Evelyn until she confesses that she had sex with her father. What I haven’t seen much commentary on, probably just because I haven’t read enough, is that when Jake asks her if it was rape, she shakes her head no. Jake himself doesn’t comment on this, and the implied relationship is made unspeakable. That’s probably the most effective way to have done it, because it leaves it up to the audience to imagine the self-loathing Evelyn must feel if she can’t speak about it.
But I confess I wrestled with her death in the end. Towne’s screenplay originally had her survive and Noah die, but Polanski insisted that she had to die if the film was to have any meaning. I interpreted that to mean that in the real world powerful men get away with murder, and to have Noah die would be in effect a fairy tale. Towne and producer Robert Evans interpreted it to mean that Polanski was thinking about the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. Maybe there’s an element of that, but either way I’d say Polanski’s take is that there are no happy endings in real life. The whole point of the film is that powerful men are beyond the reach of the law. The are the law. But does that mean Evelyn really has to die to bring home the tragic reality? Why not Jake? Isn’t making Evelyn the sacrificial victim a kind of misogyny? In symbolic terms, I think it is a kind of misogyny, but in narrative terms her death seems inevitable. She represents the abused victim of power, and in Polanski’s cynical worldview there is nothing that can save her. If Jake had died trying to save her, it would have made him seem heroic. There are no heroes in this story.
Which brings us to the title. Towne says he got the title from a conversation with an LA cop who said that in Chinatown it was so hard to tell who was on which side that you couldn’t tell whether you were helping the victims of crime or helping the people committing the crimes. This certainly describes the moral universe of the movie, but to use Chinatown as an image of it strikes me as problematic. Why are the allegiances in Chinatown so hard for the cop to decipher? Is it because Chinatown is fundamentally inscrutable, or is because cops basically don’t give a shit what happens to the denizens of Chinatown? I mean, you could just as well have called it Little Italy, couldn’t you? I actually think there’s a racial awareness hovering just below the surface of the film in the way that all the Asian characters we see are servants, and when Jake wants to avoid the attention of the cops he suggests Evelyn and her daughter go to Chinatown, where the cops don’t pay no heed. However, the racial awareness is pretty limited, and instead we get Chinatown as a metaphor rather than as a real space in the socioeconomic scheme of Los Angeles. Again, the metaphor has real power as a comment on the futility of trying to do the right thing, but it’s still problematic.