What did you do in Chinatown?
As little as possible.
Town derived this classic exchange, as well as the title of the film itself, from an old story he had heard from a former vice cop. L.A. Chinatown, with its plethora of rival gangs and arcane dialects, was a difficult place for an officer to manoeuvre. One could never be certain that one’s intervention was a help rather than a hindrance to victims, and thus officers were advised to leave matters in Chinatown alone. In the film, JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Nicholson) assumes the role of the former officer turned private eye, hardened by his experiences in the mysterious and impenetrable Chinatown.
The world of Chinatown is a multi-layered metaphor very suited to the film which shares its name. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a microcosm of 1930s Los Angeles – a potent symbol for the complexity of real life. Nothing is quite as it seems in Towne’s story, and this is especially so for our hero JJ Gittes. He enters into the tale trying to unravel an ever-complicating strand of contradiction and inconsistency, trying to set things right without ever quite knowing who the real victims are and what he is trying indeed to set right.
However, it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems for the audience either. One of the greatest strengths of Chinatown is that it pitches us comfortably for the film, cushioning us with well-worn tropes from our beloved noirs of yore. We are furnished with the hardboiled detective, the femme fatale, even the permanent staple of the film-noir – the shady (apologies for the ghastly pun) venetian blinds – are present within the opening scenes of Chinatown.
But like Gittes, we fall into a trap. The film slowly subverts everything we know, and the result is a nightmarish realisation which we share with our hero: what we had imagined we had known, we had, in actuality, not known at all. The people we have been conditioned not to trust, the apparently sleazy businessman Hollis Mulray (Zwerling), and his apparently femme fatale wife Evelyn (Dunaway), turn out to be the most honest of them all, the victims of the tale. Nothing can be taken at face value – something we, and Gittes, should have learned long ago from the experiences spoken of about Chinatown.
As for Gittes, he is intelligent and perceptive like many a detective we have come to know . Yet he possesses a very serious, very human flaw: an ironic blindness to the intricacies of life and a hubris that compels him to tackle overwhelming and unconquerable evils. Gittes is a private investigator, in other words a private eye, who makes it his business to watch and to understand others. Ultimately though, he is painfully blind to his own inadequacies, and his unconscious desire to right the wrongs of his past leads him to ignore his own advice. It is this that leads to the devastating dénouement of the film.
The ultimate subverted expectation lies in the outcome of Chinatown. The film presents us with a tragic, futile, horrifying ending. Even a man like Gittes, who seems to have everything that it takes, cannot take on the unrelenting darkness that meets him at every corner. Despite what we have been led to believe all these years, in the westerns, in the courtroom dramas, and of course, in the film-noir, the rugged, brilliant individual cannot single-handedly take on the system. He cannot defy every odd and every expectation, and he ultimately cannot bring about justice. In the words of Polanski:
I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die.
Just as JJ Gittes, in trying to be the hero, had brought great misery upon himself and others in Chinatown many years before, he does so again in the final moments of the film. The ultimate and heavily ironic tragedy is in his last act. To try and save Evelyn, Gittes tackles down a policeman, but it is a hollow deed – he had been firing only warning shots into the air. With Gittes occupied, a second policeman shoots with more sincere intent, firing at the Evelyn’s car. Rarely has there been a more chilling use of sound in cinema: we hear a piercing, howling horn as Evelyn’s head hits the wheel. The characters, and the camera, rush to the scene, and the screams of Katherine grow louder and louder as the film races to its sickeningly bleak conclusion.