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Film: China Town

One of the seminal Neo-Noir films, and considered by many to be among the best of Film Noir films 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.

Chinatown tells the story of Jake Gittes, a former cop turned Private Detective living and working in 1937 Los Angeles. Gittes 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. The woman who hired him isn't the real Mrs. Mulwray. Then the water commissioner ends up dead and the real Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to find out what really happened. He may think he knows what he's dealing with. But he doesn't.

Fun fact: Chinatown was co-financed by Bob Guccione, the publisher of the famous pornographic magazine Penthouse.

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

Had a lesser-known (and less well-regarded) sequel, The Two Jakes, directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990.


This movie contains examples of:

  • 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.
  • 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: Arguably 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?
  • 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."
  • Audience Surrogate: Jake. He appears in every scene and we learn all the various plot twists at the same time he does.
  • Berserk Button: The orange grove workers knock Jake unconscious after he calls one of them a "dumb Okie".
  • Binocular Shot
  • 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 in the opening scene, and the fact that he cannot afford to pay Jake for his services.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Faye Dunaway 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 LA 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.'
  • 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.
  • 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: Everyone thinks Evelyn Mulwray is one of these. She is the exact opposite.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It's Pronounced Tro-PAY : Noah constantly mispronounces Jake's last name as "Gits".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Reveal/Wham Line: Katherine turns out to be Mrs. Mulwray's sister AND her daughter.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Between Gittes and Evelyn.
  • Stopped Clock: Jack 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?.


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alternative title(s): Chinatown
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