Film / Chinatown

"You can't always tell what's going on."
Jake Gittes

A seminal Neo-Noir film, and considered by many to be among the best examples of Film Noir in general, Chinatown (1974) was written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. It is DARK.

The setting is 1937 Los Angeles. J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson), a former cop turned Private Detective, is hired by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the city's water commissioner, to prove that her husband is having an affair. It seems like a simple enough job. But it isn't. It turns out that the woman who hired him isn't really Mrs. Mulwray. Then the water commissioner ends up dead and the real Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway) hires Gittes to find out what really happened. He may think he knows what he's dealing with. But — as Noah Cross (Huston), Mrs. Mulwray's father and her late husband's former business partner, warns him — he really doesn't.

Fun fact: this film was co-financed by Bob Guccione, the publisher of the famous pornographic magazine Penthouse. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning for Towne's screenplay. It had a lesser-known (and less well-regarded) sequel, The Two Jakes, directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990.

For the kind of place, see Friendly Local Chinatown. Don't confuse this with Big Trouble in Little China, however tempting it may be.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: A third film, Cloverleaf, was planned. Chinatown focused on water, The Two Jakes focused on oil, and Cloverleaf would have focused on transportation. Ironically, Who Framed Roger Rabbit picked up the slack and even named the trolley car company in the film after the never-produced film!
  • Accidental Misnaming: Cross persists in pronouncing Jake's last name as "Gitts" even after he's corrected. Also, Curly addresses him as "Mr. Geetis" a couple times. In Cross' case, it could be Malicious Misnaming.
  • Adult Fear: Got evidence of corruption in the government? The rich and powerful will just cover it up. Not fair? Too bad; you're a nobody.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Gittes; there are hints given in both films.
  • And Then What?: Subverted - Jake attempts this with the villain. It doesn't work.
    Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?
    Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
    Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?
    Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.
  • Arc Words: "As little as possible."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In The Two Jakes, "The past, does it ever go away?" Jake answers the question at the end, "No, it never goes away."
  • Armor-Piercing Slap: The REAL Mrs. Mulwray gives Jake Gittes one. He shocked to realize he'd been duped by a fake Mrs. Mulwray.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: "Bad for glass" or "bad for grass"? Considering salt water is bad for both...
  • Ate His Gun: In The Two Jakes a highly cathartic sequence has Jake forcing Detective Loach to perform fellatio on his gun, which results in Loach's Potty Failure.
  • Audience Surrogate: Jake. He appears in every scene and we learn all the various plot twists at the same time he does.
  • The Bad Guy Wins
  • Belated Happy Ending: The Two Jakes shows Kathryn got away from Noah, probably because the latter died.
  • Berserk Button: The orange grove workers knock Jake unconscious after he calls one of them a "dumb Okie".
  • Binocular Shot
  • Brick Joke: The very first scene has Jake showing Curly the evidence of his wife's infidelity. Toward the end of the film, when Jake goes to Curly's house to shake off the cops, the door is answered by his wife... who sports a noticeable shiner.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The script is loaded with these. Nothing is superfluous in this movie.
    • 'Bad for glass'. The salt water is bad for the grass.
    • Evelyn has a flaw in her left eye. Guess where Evelyn eventually gets shot?
    • Even the seemingly insignificant touch of Evelyn accidentally setting off the car horn by resting her head on the steering wheel comes back with a vengeance at the end, when Jake (and the audience) know her fate even before seeing the carnage by the continuous sound of the car horn.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Jake's client Curly in the opening scene, and the fact that he cannot afford to pay Jake for his services.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Mrs. Mulwray gets so nervous that she lights a cigarette while her previous one is still burning.
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Roman Polanski himself appears in the film as the short hoodlum with the knife who slices Jake's nose.
    • C.O. Erickson, the film's executive producer, plays the banker in the barbershop who starts an argument with Jake.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Jake's response when Yelburton asks what happened to his nose.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Both Jake and Evelyn turn out to have one. Evelyn was raped by her father and ran away at 15. Jake's is less elaborated upon, but his work in Chinatown prior to the start of the movie is treated as one. This is especially relevant in the scene where he remarks that Chinatown still bothers everyone who was assigned there.
  • Dead Man Honking: The film ends with Evelyn jumping in her car and trying to escape from the Big Bad, her insanely evil father Noah Cross. Shots are fired, there's a sound of a crash, and the sound of a droning car horn. A dead Evelyn has collapsed on the car horn. Cue Downer Ending.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jake is master of this.
  • Deconstruction: A broad one of Film Noir, considering that Noir is hardly conventional storytelling itself that shows how dark the film is:
    • As per Robert Towne, the film is a more accurate portrayal of the Private Detective archetype than seen in the works of Raymond Chandler. Where the likes of Philip Marlowe are noble "tarnished knights" or Knight in Sour Armor, J. J. Gittes does actual Private Detective work. That is, taking seedy and sleazy pictures of adulterous spouses for suspicious clients, illegal surveillance and voyeurism, and generally living a very well-heeled existence. Gittes defends his line of work by pointing out that the police are equally sleazy and corrupt while he is honest. In the end he gets a powerful reality check.
    • Moreover, noir stories often had the hero get entangled in stories and have the detective try and solve the mystery to unearth a conspiracy. In this film, the detective is himself an Unwitting Pawn to the real conspiracy and had he done "As little as possible", the heroine could perhaps have lived and made it across the border anyway.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The characters' casual sexism/racism/antisemitism. The manager of the Vista Inn retirement home, who openly tells Gittes they won't provide any service to Jews, is a notable example.
  • Despotism Justifies the Means: Noah Cross is already the richest and most powerful man in Los Angeles; he gladly admits he has no idea of how much wealth he really has except that it's over $10 million, yet goes ahead with his plan to seize control of the water simply because it will make him EVEN MORE richer and powerful. In his own words:
    Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat; what can you buy that you can't already afford?
    Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!
  • Detective Patsy: Jake, when he works for the first "Mrs. Mulwray". And pretty much every moment after.
  • Dirty Cop: Gittes strongly implies that Mulvihill was one during his time with the police. In their first scene together, Gittes mentions that when Mulvihill served (during Prohibition) "the rumrunners never lost a drop," hinting that he was on the take.
  • Downer Ending: An incredibly nasty example. Noah gets away with it all. Everything, from raping his daughter, to kidnapping his daughter's daughter. And Jake can do nothing about it. Keeping in mind Noah had raped his daughter, it looks bleak for his granddaughter/daughter Katherine. She gets away from him, as noted in The Two Jakes.
  • Down L.A. Drain: The plot revolves around the LA water system. The concrete structures are featured.
  • Eureka Moment: The salt water pond is what is 'bad for glass.'
  • Even Evil Has Standards: You want to know how bleak the ending is? Even Noah Cross, one of the most evil and despicable villains ever put on screen, is visibly shocked and upset when Evelyn Mulwray is shot.
    • Subverted. His cries of horror are so forced and fake one can tell it is his half-assed ruse of being a gentle man, all while dragging his daughter/granddaughter from the vehicle over the guise of protecting her, whisking her away as his next rape victim.
  • Everybody Smokes: Appropriate for the period. Lampshaded when Jake asks the coroner, Morty, how he's doing, to which Morty complains of a cough - puffing away all the while, blissfully unaware of things like emphysema or lung cancer.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Just listen to John Huston's voice. Screenwriter Robert Towne once expressed that Huston was the second best-cast actor in the film, next to Jack Nicholson. Huston's performance, he claimed, elevated Cross above the portrayal in the script and made him truly memorable.
  • Eye Scream: Evelyn ends up getting fatally shot through the eye at the end. It was her "flawed" eye.
  • Failure Knight: Jake.
  • Faux Affably Evil: This is the facade that Noah Cross hides behind. Beneath, Cross is a living example of what a man is capable of doing if he had no moral scruples and no law to stop him.
    Cross: See, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time, and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING.
  • Femme Fatale:
  • Film Noir: The film goes out of its way to subvert almost all the core tropes of the genre. Gittes isn't a tough, emotionally detached private eye, but rather a vulnerable, flawed Anti-Hero. Evelyn isn't a Femme Fatale, but everyone assumes she is (in part because of the misogynistic value system underpinning 1930s California). And the villain is so rich, powerful and influential that Gittes is ultimately powerless to stop him or his conspiracy. And so on.
  • Foreshadowing: Right after Gittes gets his nose sliced (by a character played by Roman Polanski), he talks about suing the people responsible for the shenanigans. His assistants snark that the people he's after would have the judge in their pocket....
    • Much is made of the flaw in Evelyn's eye. Guess where she gets shot in the end?
    • When Gittes asks Evelyn what the "C" monogram on a certain document stands for, she briefly chokes on the name before she says "Cross".
    • Most famously...Evelyn's head hitting her car horn.
    • Gittes: I forgot my glasses. I'd like to be able to read across.
  • Gratuitous French: When Jake is in bed with Evelyn and speaks about his bad memories of Chinatown.
    Evelyn: Cherchez la femme.
    Jake: (looks back in blank incomprehension)
    Evelyn: Was there a woman involved?
    Jake: Of course.
    • And earlier, when Jake tells Evelyn, "I'm in matrimonial work. It's my métier."
  • Guile Hero: While "hero" might be something of a stretch, the fact is that Jake is VERY good at making people slip up so he can wring info out of them, and has so many tricks up his sleeve he'd do Batman proud.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Jake.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Jake has one of the more famous ones in cinematic history after Evelyn is killed.
  • It's Pronounced Tro-PAY: Noah constantly mispronounces Jake's last name as "Gits".note 
  • Karma Houdini: Part of the Downer Ending is that Noah Cross gets away scot-free for his crimes, and even takes Katherine, his daughter/granddaughter, away at the end. It's implied that he'll go on to molest her the same way he did his daughter.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "Hollis Mulwray" is derived from William Mulholland, the name of one of the men involved in the real events which the film fictionalizes (see Very Loosely Based on a True Story) and who also gave his name to a famous road in California.
    • Noah Cross, who is trying to gain control of all the water in Los Angeles. Noah Cross' original name in the script was Julian, so someone on the team probably decided to change the name sometime during production in realization.
    • The coroner's name is Morty (Mort is French for "dead").
  • Meta Casting: John Huston, the director of many of the Film Noir classics, in the role of the villain.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: At the beginning of the film, farmers are campaigning for the construction of a new dam which will allow for better irrigation. Hollis explains that the proposed site for the new dam has a shale base, as did the previous dam in the area, which collapsed and killed five hundred people. In a line of dialogue present in the screenplay but not the film itself, Escobar explains that the reason this collapse and all the deaths it caused didn't get sufficient publicity was because most of the people killed were Mexican immigrants.
  • Moe Greene Special: Evelyn's death. Although the shot enters her skull from the back.
  • My Greatest Failure: The driving force behind Gittes' involvement in The Two Jakes is the death of Evelyn and the unknown fate of Kathyrn.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!:
    • Gittes gives Cross the only piece of evidence capable of proving him guilty of murdering Hollis Mulwray. Whoops.
    • Calling the cops on Evelyn under the erroneous belief that she's the culprit.
  • Noodle Incident: We never do find out exactly what happened in Chinatown when Jake was working there.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The irritating clerk at the Hall of Records seems to be doing everything he can to be as unhelpful as humanly possible.
  • Parental Incest: It's revealed that Noah Cross raped Evelyn Mulwray, his daughter, and Katherine is the result of this. Towne said it was a metaphor for Los Angeles' corruption at the time. "Incest and water".
  • Police Are Useless: They are powerless to stop Noah Cross's plot, in part because according to Evelyn he owns the police.
  • Rape as Drama: How Katherine was conceived, although Cross claims otherwise.
  • Red Herring: Hollis not wearing his glasses when his body is recovered. Gittes finds a pair of glasses and assumes they belong to him, when in fact they belong to his killer.
  • Retraux: The sepia-toned opening credits, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio and vintage Paramount logo.
  • The Reveal/Wham Line: Katherine turns out to be Mrs. Mulwray's sister AND her daughter.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The casting of John Huston, the director of many of the great, early noirs including The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, as Noah Cross.
    • The scene in which Gittes repeatedly slaps Evelyn to try and get her to fess up recalls a similar scene in The Maltese Falcon.
    • Polanski's cameo as "Man with a Knife" is often seen as a title drop of his own film "Knife in the Water"
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The "Man with a Knife" (played by the film's director) only appears in one scene with only one line of dialogue (he barely appears later in the background of a sequence), but also sports one of the most memorable lines and is memorably creepy and jumpy, as well as scarring Jake's face for the remainder of the film. His role is even more memorable as one of the two roles by famous and influential film directors.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Between Gittes and Evelyn.
  • Stealth Pun: After following Mr. Mulwray to a series of reservoirs one of Jake's employees comments that he has "water on the brain", meaning literally he's thinking about water but which is also an antiquated name for hydrocephalus, a condition in children that can cause retardation. Jake smiles in response but the pun is never acknowledged in dialog.
  • Stopped Clock: Jake places a watch under the car of the person he's tailing. That way he can know at what time he left by the time the watch was run over.
  • Sunshine Noir: The beautiful, golden cinematography of the city contrasts greatly with what actually goes on inside it.
  • Title Drop: Probably one of the most famous examples: "Forget it, Jake—it's Chinatown...."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The city of Los Angeles really did steal water from valley farmers. Interestingly, this was neither the first nor the last time the events in question were fictionalized, merely the most well-known.
    • The catastrophic dam collapse referenced by Hollis Mulwray at the city council meeting was likely inspired by the real-life failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, which killed over 400 people.
  • Villainous Incest: One of several things that really helps to cement Noah Cross as a thoroughly nasty villain.
  • Visionary Villain: Noah Cross. See And Then What?, above.
  • Wham Line: Has two, which are about five minutes apart.
    • "Oh yes, bad for glass. Salt water vely bed for glass."
    • "She's my daughter! She's my sister! She's my daughter! My sister! My daughter! She's my sister AND my daughter!"
    • In The Two Jakes, Kathyrn Mulwray's name being mentioned on a recording.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Jake slaps Evelyn repeatedly to get the truth out of her. When he comes to call in a favour from a man that hired him to find out if his wife was cheating on him, the wife opens the door sporting a huge black eye. In keeping with the Deliberate Values Dissonance, neither of these instances spark much outrage in-universe.
  • Wretched Hive: From the way Jake reminisces about his days there and the events by the film's end, you can tell Chinatown was one of these.
  • Writer on Board: The reason for Gittes' totally-out-of-left-field question ("Do you accept those of the Jewish persuasion?") and the ensuing Deliberate Values Dissonance at the upper-class retirement home. Although it would also give him an excuse to look at the records of the place, so it's a little justified in universe.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Gittes specializes in "matrimonial work" resulting from this, which is how he gets involved with the Mulwrays to begin with.
  • Your Mom: Gittes uses the wife variation to insult a cop:
    Loach: What happened to your nose, Gittes? Somebody slammed a bedroom window on it?
    Jake: Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick, you understand what I mean, pal?.

Alternative Title(s): The Two Jakes