Chinatown is an old Neo-Noir from 1974 directed by Roman Polanski, some call its screenplay the best ever written and it’s final words are remembered by anyone who happened to watch it. In my new series, a Journey Through Film, I will be looking back on films like this, that either influenced cinema, or that are just straight up classics. Also considering I have never seen these before, it will be an interesting series to try. Note that these will likely contain spoilers, as they are a review and a small amount of deconstruction combined. If you haven’t seen Chinatown yet, go watch it, I implore you, its ending is mind numbingly brilliant, it is wonderfully shot, the characters are great, the mystery is done well enough so as to keep you intrigued, just everything is fantastic. Seriously if you haven’t seen this film, stop reading and go watch it. Now let us start with Chinatown.
The first thing to consider is that it’s a Neo-Noir a genre which takes inspiration from the Film Noir of the 40s and 50s updating them with colour, new styles and themes, but usually having the dark story, smoke and chiaroscuro lighting that Film Noir is famous for. Chinatown has this all in spades, the lighting, particularly during office scenes, give us the famous shadowed Venetian blinds Film Noirs love, though perhaps less impressive since the film is in colour. The story loves to go into dark territory, particularly the end which is a punch to the gut and a truly saddening and horrifying scene. Then of course smoke is in spades since you can’t have any Noir film without smoke in it.
The film isn’t afraid to use its Film Noir roots to trick you however, for instance there is no Femme Fatale, and for the majority of the film it does try portray the main female character – Evelyn as one, all the usual suspects, acts a bit mysterious or dodgy, is obviously lying, recently deceased husband. Of course it ends up turning this trope on us which is a wonderful thing to do, and it changes her from what seems to be a typical evil conniving femme fatale, into a tragic and genuine character. One could even consider this change to make the film have some slight satirical leanings, I have seen people talk about Chinatown in such terms, personally I find it a genuine Neo-Noir that is greatly enhanced by its ability to use its Film Noir origins to improve the film or trick viewers of Film Noir.
The only thing that always bothers me with Noir films in general, is that I very often find them boring through a good majority of the time all leading up to a magnificent ending. A good majority of the films are just dudes walking around asking questions, which if the film is well done is still interesting in a way, I mean Chinatown does actually avoid this plenty enough but still even though it is plot important him walking around a farm really isn’t the height of fascination. Perhaps it is my unable to sit still nature that leads me to such feelings but still it is there. It is always made up though by their endings, which do bring these elements together in an always wonderful way.
The thing that always strikes me, about these old films, is that they aren’t afraid to let the camera stay on the characters for appropriately long periods of time. In the modern drama or detective films whenever things get heated they love to change shot, change shot, change shot ad nauseam to the point they interrupt whatever drama or interesting thing are happening on screen. Chinatown does what it needs to with its shots, it lets them stay for long periods, changing only when it is required to, so as not to bore or confuse the audience. I think a good example is the ending. When Evelyn is shot by the cops, the film lets you wonder for just a moment. As you are sitting there with Gittes you are thinking did they get her? Ok the car seems to have stopped so what did they hit? The tires? Evelyn? The engine? It is the fact that the film lets you stay like this, that it lets you wonder, or hope that makes it so great. Any bad or mediocre modern film would likely change your view to the cars, or at least zoom in but Polanski lets the film just set, building up wonder and intrigue, which makes it all the more special when we find Evelyn dead and her sister screaming.
Of course the ending itself is brilliant in more then just cinematography. Chinatown also has its unforgettable visuals, the horrifying realization that the bad guy just won and now what is likely going to happen to Evelyn’s Sister. Then of course Jake last line “As little as possible” and the memorable and famous “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”. It really is a scene that I don’t think I will ever forget. I know I am preaching a bit much about the ending but I truly love it it is just wonderful in so many ways, a master of cinematography, of story, acting, backstory, character, all coming together into this piece of just sadness and finality that drives home the failure of good and the failure to fix past mistakes.
It leads me on to what I consider the most special things about all the good Noir films, Film or Neo, their ending scenes. Blade Runner, Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil and of course Chinatown all have memorable endings, whether it be quotes, actions, visuals or story, they are just simply memorable. Even though I don’t like Blade Runner, after Deckard fights Pris everything during and after are just so amazing and phenomenal in the way they are shot, their lovely use of shadow and of course the amazing “Tears in Rain” ad lib. Quinlan when he realizes what he has become as he staggers backwards and dies in Touch of Evil. All of these scenes and many more are just fantastic in most if not every way possible.
Actors of course nail their performances, Nicholson nails his performance as the ex cop turned private eye, who’s willing to dig into cases no matter the consequences. Faye Dunaway perfectly portrays Evelyn, she manages to create a brilliant ever so seedy femme fatale during the first parts of the films and in the latter she does an even better job at showing us this women who is terrified of her own father and desperately wants to do something, anything to prevent her sister meeting the same fate, but in the end fails. The high point for me by far is when she is revealing the truth about her sister to Gittes, it truly shows this women who, like Gittes, is utterly scarred by her past, and wants to do anything she can to prevent her sister meeting that fate.
I actually think the duality between Gittes and Evelyn is absolutely wonderful, especially when juxtaposed with John Hustons character, Noah Cross. Noah is this obviously just horrible man, he doesn’t even bother justifying what he did, he never admits anything he does as wrong, he considers himself almost above others and decidedly will do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants. He simply doesn’t care. As a result he does not care about what he did to Evelyn in the past, he shows no regret, no remorse, no sympathy. Even saying on the subject of Evelyn and her getting away from him. “I don’t blame myself. See Mr Gitts most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time, at the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
Now Gittes and Evelyn are different to him, particularly in their attitude to the past. Gittes, though it is never specifically said (which makes it all the more intriguing, brilliant and in general a great storytelling decision) did end up hurting someone he was trying to help. Evelyn was raped by her father. Both of these facts haunt the people it happened to, Evelyn is terrified by her father, traumatized by what he did, and desperately tries to help her sister so the same thing doesn’t happen to her, almost like how Jake Gittes tried to help the person he cared for. Now Jake does seem to care for Evelyn to some extent, it’s never clarified (though it doesn’t need to be) but he clearly tries to help her with the situation she is in by getting her out of the country so as to escape her father, perhaps even to make up for what he did years ago in Chinatown, perhaps he can save this person. Of course this is crushed in the end where his actions do lead to (okay in a roundabout way technically but we are deconstructing here) another person he cares about getting hurt, again in Chinatown. It is also funny how Evelyn and Jake both want to help a person, however they are both hurt for it, Evelyn is killed, and Jake fails in his quest, and this duality of failure makes it so interesting when you realize the only person who does not care for his past, lives.
Noah lives, he wins, he gets what he wants. The man who is willing to put his past behind him, though awful as he is wins. Now whether this is a comment on if you are willing to forget your past mistakes you can succeed, or that rich people get what they desire, or that awful people in the world do win sometimes and all you can do is watch in regret as you see the same awful thing you might have been able to stop happen again. It could be any or all of these, it really is personal interpretation.
All of those really are sub messages though, to what I consider the main theme. Evil wins, or at least good fails. The film during the final scenes does drip this sense of hope, of yes Gittes can win and help someone, do what he once failed to do. Then of course this is destroyed. Evelyn tries to help and dies for it. Even Hollis Mulwray who attempts to stop Noah’s ambition and greed, is killed for it. The story shows this hope of victory only to destroy it before you and say that good does not always win. This is another Film Noir theme twisted, whereas usually the bad guys do fail, they are often the protagonists and often caught up in the femme fatales plot. They become bad for example in Double Indemnity Walter Neff kills Phyllis’s husband for her and eventually is caught and killed. However in this, though the parallels of a man caught up in a females actions persists, now they are simply the good guys, not just protagonists, good people but the Film Noir influence stays strong and in the end they either die or they fail at their goals.
Chinatown is a brilliant film, it shows us the times where good fails against bad, where sometimes mistakes will repeat themselves and gives us a glimpse into the awfulness of the world. Its twisting of some Film Noir conventions and its adaption of others combine together to create a wonderful Neo-Noir film that doesn’t stray so far from its roots that it becomes something else, but not so close that it is unoriginal. It is simply a masterfully put together film which I honestly say you should recommend to anyone you think might like it because it truly is a masterpiece.