Chinatown at 50: Our Noir Responsibility to One Another

Movies Features Roman Polanski
Chinatown at 50: Our Noir Responsibility to One Another

Roman Polanski’s seminal 1974 neo-noir Chinatown has a great deal to reckon with. Chinatown centers on Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator working in Los Angeles in the 1930s. The picture is set against the backdrop of the California water wars—a series of conflicts between farmers and the city of Los Angeles—with this setting serving as a conduit for exploring the political machinations of power. Early in the film, Jake crosses paths with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway)—wife of Hollis, chief engineer of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power—and their muddy, unclear marriage predicates Jake’s investigation. As Jake delves further into the crevices of Evelyn’s personal life and the stratagems of the water department, Chinatown reveals itself as an epistemological work. Through its focus on Jake, it’s one that reckons with the moral duty we hold when receiving victims’ stories—and when interpreting said story, dealing with the unfolding consequences as a result of one’s interpretation. 

This conceit is ironic when considering Polanski’s life. In 1977, three years after Chinatown premiered, Polanski was arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of “unlawful sex with a minor,” but upon hearing of the judge’s intention to throw out his plea bargain, the filmmaker fled the U.S. for Europe. Having traversed through Poland and France over the following years, Polanski has continued working; his most recent film The Palace premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (along with new films from Woody Allen and Luc Besson, who also have sexual assault allegations).

A discursive response to the noir tradition, Chinatown meditates on the typical set of noir characters. This includes the genre’s prototypical protagonist: a cynical, antisocial lone wolf, marred and moored by his past. It’s not that Jake is far from this, but that his embodiment of this trope serves as a cautionary tale. His nebulous ethics and passivity end up posing devastating consequences.

Evelyn, perhaps, is Chinatown’s femme fatale, though she more than Jake is a re-update on the trope she embodies. She appears to be an inscrutable, destructive force, but is revealed as a victim of incestuous sexual violence by her father, Noah Cross (John Huston)—a wealthy industrialist who plans to incorporate the North West Valley into the county of Los Angeles so as to develop, irrigate and profit off of the land himself. It is Evelyn, not Jake, who transcends the image Polanski is initially reliant on to etch her. She is a full character because she defies traditional narrative confines; Jake is perturbing because he epitomizes the passive, cynical noir hero even when the conditions around him demand otherwise.

In other words, they demand action. And yet, in a pivotal scene in Chinatown, upon confronting Evelyn about her claim that Katherine is both her daughter and her sister (a truth, in that Katherine is a product of her sister’s rape), Jake slaps Evelyn repeatedly, eventually smashing her face into glass. “I want the truth, damn it!” He repeats over and over.

“She’s my sister and my daughter,” Evelyn says, her tear-stained face finally begetting this sober realization in Jake. Here we see Jake’s failure of his epistemological duty: he receives and interprets Evelyn’s story, and with it, treats her like Noah. Like Noah, Jake has had sex with Evelyn; like Noah, he’s abused her.

Soon after, Jake ascertains it is Noah who murdered Evelyn’s husband, Hollis, in alignment with his plans to integrate the North West Valley, the Shakespearean family dynamics informing the monopolistic aims of the industrialist. As a noir hero, according to his own moral code—focused on solving cases regardless of their ethical implications—this necessitates Jake going after Noah. Chinatown’s success is dependent on the grafting of these micro-dynamics of predatory betrayal onto the macro, namely, Noah’s rapacious ambitions to consolidate structural power. 

The final scene of Chinatown is harrowing, in part because it demonstrates how larger institutions—purportedly in place to protect the public—routinely work in conjunction alongside marauding financial interests. Perhaps even more than this, though, it’s chilling because Jake’s moral obligation (as an individual working outside these institutions) is unrealized. The scene, which follows Jake accusing Noah of murdering Hollis, sees the former arrested, purportedly for extortion. Jake attempts to fulfill his duty (“He’s crazy, Lou! He killed Mulwray because of the water thing!”), but the police dismiss him. Noah advances on his daughter, Katherine, confesses to her that he is also her grandfather, and gets in Evelyn’s car in an attempt to take Katherine away. Evelyn pulls out her gun, and the police beckon her to put it away. “He owns the police!” she says before she shoots her father in response, and the police in turn shoot her. 

The police are presumably not aware of Evelyn’s experience with her father, perhaps the reason they idly watch Noah kidnap his granddaughter. But we are. Jake is. And although he’s distressed, he’s detained. He has no choice but to stand idle, in lockstep with the police. He tries to break away from this, to stop the police from shooting Evelyn, but is unsuccessful. The police demand that Jake go home, that he’s released. As one of his associates leads him away from the crime scene, he tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

The line is still heartrending—doubly so—because of what it represents in a textual and extratextual sense. Jake’s intentions are obstructed by the larger institutions he’s beholden to. He’s made mistakes in fulfilling his duty, but in his re-commitment to follow his own moral code he is rendered unable to do so. 

The external reality of Chinatown’s release indicates something similar. Polanski tells a cautionary tale about our institutions buoying corruption, and the emotional devastation wrought upon victims, upon each other, when we fail to fulfill our epistemological duty. The deep sadness in this is that Chinatown is so afflicting because its filmmaker is familiar with this scenario in intimate fashion. There are many Noahs. Polanski is likely one of them. 

In the final frames of Chinatown, Jake turns around and goes home. A crowd gathers around Evelyn’s bloodied body, after which the police demand they disperse. Do we simply go home? Is there anything to be done after we’ve been spectators of violence? Do we learn and discern Polanski’s troubling background and merely shrug our shoulders, alternately trying to sit with and forget that knowledge? 

Maybe all there is just sitting, knowing that it’s Chinatown.


Hafsah Abbasi is a film critic who has covered the Sundance Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival in years past. She currently resides in Berkeley, California. Find her latest writing at https://twitter.com/hafs_uh.

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