Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

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