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Film / Chinatown

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"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Lawrence Walsh

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 Polański. 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. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (winning for Best Original Screenplay), 7 Golden Globe Awards (winning for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenplay), and 7 BAFTAs (winning for Best Actor, Director, and Screenplay, with Nicholson and Towne earning their awards for both this film and The Last Detail). A lesser-known — and much less well-regarded — sequel, The Two Jakes, was 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:

  • Abusive Parents: Noah Cross raped and impregnated his own daughter Evelyn Mulwray when she was 14 and attempted to do the same with his daughter/granddaughter Katherine.
  • Accidental Misnaming: Cross persists in pronouncing Jake's last name as "Gitts" even after he's corrected (which could be Malicious Misnaming). Also, Curly addresses him as "Mr. Geetis" a couple times.
  • Actor Allusion:
    • Once again, John Huston plays a man named Noah whose life has to do with water. (He'd previously played the biblical Noah in his own 1966 film The Bible.)
    • Faye Dunaway's best known role is as Bonnie Parker, who is graphically shot down in a car by the police at the end of that film. Evelyn dies in a similar manner.
  • 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, so forget it, or even better "do as little as possible".
  • All There in the Script: The first draft revealed what went down in Chinatown. Gittes was working for the district attorney's office and against advice got involved in the wars between rival Chinese gangs. He attempted to save Cherry, a sex worker who along with Gittes' boss got caught in the crossfire.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: While the film is nominally set in 1937, its portrayal of Los Angeles plucks bits and pieces from multiple eras (as noted in this article). The water rights problem was an issue of the 1910s and '20s, while Gittes makes reference to "Okies" (an insulting word for Dust Bowl-era migrant farmers from Oklahoma) and we see a large portrait of FDR.
    Chinatown is a ‘70s image of a ‘40s image of the ‘30s, apparently based, in turn, on Los Angeles water politics from an earlier period again and complete with a kind of indeterminate post ‘50s soundtrack.
  • 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 Response: Mrs. Mulwray delivers some to Jake when being slapped by him and being pushed to answer his questions about her relationship with Katherine. And then she delivers a big one to him, also a Wham Line.
  • Armor-Piercing Slap: The REAL Mrs. Mulwray gives Jake Gittes one. He shocked to realize he'd been duped by a fake Mrs. Mulwray. Later, Jake gives several of these to the real Mrs. Mulray asking her for the truth about her relations with a young woman named Katherine.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Jake interrogating Mrs. Mulwray on her relations with the mystery woman Katherine.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: "Bad for glass" or "bad for grass"? Considering salt water is bad for both...
  • Audience Surrogate: Jake. He appears in every scene and we learn all the various plot twists at the same time he does. Incidentally, Polański doubled down on this. Towne originally wanted to add a POV in the Noir style, but Polański felt it would be more interesting if we stuck entirely to his viewpoint without the audience being detached from his perspective.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: One of cinema's most iconic and unforgettable examples. Noah Cross not only gets away with it, but the Hero is left alive, powerless and stunned, and he gets to watch the villain grab his next victim in full view and disappear, fully aware that he's so low in the totem pole that the villain doesn't even have to kill him, like he did Hollis Mulwray and others.
  • Berserk Button: The orange grove workers knock Jake unconscious after he calls one of them a "dumb Okie".
  • Big Bad: Noah Cross is the corporate mastermind responsible for not only buying up the farmers' newly-drained land to control the water supply for his business partners but also raped his own daughter Evelyn Murray.
  • Binocular Shot: Jake surveys Hollis Mulwray and his "mistress" with this in the early part of the film.
  • 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.
  • Can't Spit It Out: Evelyn struggles many times throughout the film to communicate some of her discomfort to Gittes but never quite gets herself to admit it fully until it's too late. This is understandable, on account of the trauma she experienced and the social stigma of being not only a rape victim, but being raped by her rich and powerful father and fathering a child of incest, would make it difficult to confess to anyone, leave alone to Gittes, who initially came across as a snarky snooping gumshoe with a sleazy profile.
    • The first time is when she and Gittes are eating in the restaurant and Gittes flat out asks what's going on, noting that he got his nose cut and would like to know why. Gittes calls for the car and is about to leave before Evelyn yells out his name, in reflex before catching herself.
    • The second time is after they have sex, where Evelyn tries to communicate some of her unease about her father only to recoil when Gittes reveals he met him without informing her, warning him that Noah Cross is a very dangerous man.
    • The third time is right after Gittes tailed her to the house where she keeps Katharine and Gittes confronts her about kidnapping Mulwray's "girlfriend" only for Evelyn to state that she's her sister and being disappointed when Gittes walks away again.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The script is loaded with these. Nothing is superfluous in this movie. For example, 'Bad for glass'. The salt water is bad for the grass.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Jake's client Curly in the opening scene, and the fact that he cannot afford to pay Jake for his services.
  • Child by Rape: Katherine is this, due Noah Cross's Parental Incest on Evelyn Mulwray when she was 14.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Mrs. Mulwray gets so nervous that she lights a cigarette while her previous one is still burning.
  • The Con: A real estate scam is the essence of Cross' plan as he renders vast farmlands arid by illegally dumping their irrigation water into the ocean, thus causing their prices to plummet to next to nothing. After forcing the farmers to sell their land to his cabal of corrupt business partners, Cross intends to develop his newly acquired land by irrigating it with the water supply diverted from the city itself, through a new aqueduct and reservoir built from $8 million of taxpayer money.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive / Corporate Conspiracy: Noah Cross, already the richest man in Los Angeles, renders vast farmlands arid by illegally dumping their irrigation water into the ocean, thus causing their prices to plummet to next to nothing. After forcing the farmers to sell their land to his cabal of corrupt business partners, Cross intends to develop his newly acquired land by irrigating it with the water supply diverted from the city itself, through a new aqueduct and reservoir built from $8 million of taxpayer money. His only gain from this elaborate swindle is "The future!".
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Roman Polański 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.
  • Cut Short: 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!
  • Dame with a Case: Evelyn Mulwray turns up at Jake's private eye agency believing that her husband, Hollis, is cheating on her. Jack follows Hollis and finds out that he appears to be cheating on Evelyn. Then it gets deconstructed when the real Evelyn arrives and tells him that she had no idea. Then Hollis is murdered, so Evelyn hires Jake for real to find out what is going on.
  • 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.
  • Death by Irony: Mrs. Mulwray is shot through her flawed eye.
  • 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 rich 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. Gits! 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 as sheriff of Ventura County. In their first scene together, Gittes mentions that when Mulvihill served (during Prohibition) "the rumrunners landed hundreds of tons of booze on the beach and never lost a drop," hinting that he was on the take.
  • Dirty Old Man: A throwaway gag has an old man at the nursing home pinching a nurse's bottom. ("Charlie, you know better than that.") Noah Cross is an especially grotesque example of this.
  • Domestic Abuse: Curly the client who meets Gittes in the opening scene is revealed to have beaten his adulterous spouse. When Gittes redirects Lopez and Escobar to his house, the door is opened by his wife who sports a prominent black eye. When Curly introduces Gittes, his wife sneers in anger that she knows exactly who he is.
  • 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 but it's implied that Noah Cross never faced justice and that Katherine is still haunted and traumatized by her past and Jake himself never got over that failure.
  • 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.'
  • 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.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The bulk of the action takes place over three really long days, starting from Evelyn's visit to Gittes' office where she officially hires him, and proceeding from there.
  • Exact Words: When Jake pushes Mrs. Mulwray for the answers to whom Katherine is, she keeps telling him "she's my sister... she's my daughter..."
  • Facial Horror: Gittes' being "nosy" gets a thug played by Polański himself to slice up his nose.
  • Failure Knight:
    • Jake is quite smart, basically competent and if he were handling a simple case or a simpler situation than he might have succeeded, but in the end he confronts forces of commerce, economics and political corruption bigger than he can comprehend or do anything about and just doesn't quite let go.
    • Incidentally, there's also the question of whether Jake's "successes" are a good thing. In the first scene he provides photographs of a client's wife committing adultery in the park and consoling the husband. Later Jake seeks out his house as a way to get past Cross' goons and he sees the wife with a visible black eye, implying that his regular joke of taking photographs of cheating couples is not quite as decent he thinks it is.
  • Family Relationship Switcheroo: Katherine is thought to be Evelyn Mulwray's sister. Then she is thought to be her daughter. Turns out Katherine is both Mrs. Mulwray's sister and daughter.
  • 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.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: When Jake asks Mrs. Mulwray who Katherine is and she tearfully answers "She's my sister, she's my daughter. My sister. My daughter." Then she's thrown to the floor and she screams out the Wham Line to Jake.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Right after Gittes gets his nose sliced (by a character played by Roman Polański), 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....
    • When Gittes asks Evelyn what the "C" monogram on a certain document stands for, she briefly chokes on the name before she says "Cross" and throughout their interactions struggles to talk about her father, indicating the abuse she experienced and still experiences as a result of her rape.
    • Much is made of the flaw in Evelyn's eye. Guess where she gets shot in the end?
    • Gittes: I forgot my glasses. I'd like to be able to read across.
    • Most famously...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.
  • Friend on the Force: Escobar and Loach, to a point.
  • Genre Deconstruction: It started out as a Genre Throwback to Film Noir but it ended up becoming this instead, taking full advantage of the end of The Hays Code to put on-screen the stuff the classic noir stories merely hinted at:
    • Nicholson's Gittes is very much imagined as the tough-guy detective archetype perfected by Humphrey Bogart but unlike the gunsels and low-rent tough guys Bogart fought against, Gittes fights state and corporate villainy and only barely understands the scheme of which he is so low and unimportant that it literally does not matter to the bad guys that he knows the truth or not, they know that he can do nothing and that he won't do anything to stop them. In the end he gets a powerful reality check and reveals that under that facade of a tough Hardboiled Detective is a vulnerable, lonely and embittered man. Likewise, the misogynistic assumptions about Femme Fatale and bad girls in the classic noir are turned on its head, when its those same assumptions that leads Gittes to unwittingly cause Evelyn's death. Also Jake acts like a snarky wisecracker who always gets the last word in, but the film shows that his mouth keeps getting him into trouble, as he repeatedly irritates and insults his colleagues and associates, and gets punched out once.
    • 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. But the film casts doubt on this. For instance, the client at the start of the film, on finding out that his wife cheated on him is shown to later beat his wife, giving us some sense of why his wife cheated on him to start with, and making us understand that it's unlikely any of Gittes' work is truly innocent or qualifies as "honest living" as he insists at the start.
    • 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.
    • Evelyn Mulwray is likewise an attack on the concept of the Femme Fatale. A beautiful elegant woman who is cold and aloof in public is obviously some villainous slutty vamp rather than a deeply vulnerable victim of abuse trying to hide her suffering from a uncaring world and society. Evelyn literally has no one to turn to in the patriarchal America of her time, and the great effort that she goes through to help herself and her daughter/sister comes undone precisely because of the misogynistic assumptions that even the hero Jake Gittes' shares and upholds.
    • The film likewise underscores the racism, sexism and classism that a period Film Noir usually leaves out. As bad as the Big Bad is, the world around him is hardly better, with the upper-crust being anti-semites, Gittes' lower-class clients being wife-beaters and basically giving a sense how genuinely a City Noir setting really is a Crapsack World and subverting the Retraux nostalgic appeal noir fashions usually attract.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Jake gives Evelyn one of the ultimate examples of this trope, slapping her repeatedly to get her to tell him the truth about Katherine.
  • Gratuitous French:
    • Jake tells Evelyn, "I'm in matrimonial work. It's my métier."
    • 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.
  • Gruesome Grandparent: Noah Cross ends up taking his granddaughter Katherine in after her mother Evelyn's death, clearly planning to rape her as he did to her mother, resulting in Katherine's birth.
  • 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 Gittes, or at least he tries to assume this persona to hide the fact that he's very vulnerable, lonely and bitter, and to cover up how truly powerless he feels, which he finally confronts at the end. Indeed, Jake's insistence on putting on that macho, wiseacre personality likely makes him harder to be trusted and taken seriously by both Evelyn and the police.
  • Heroic BSoD: Jake has one of the more famous ones in cinematic history after Evelyn is killed.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Jake Gittes voices the saying in Chinatown to Evelyn "Do as little as possible" and earlier likewise tells his client to not seek the truth and "let sleeping dogs lie". Yet throughout the film he doesn't follow his own advice, pursuing the Hollis Mulwray murder mystery even when there's no legal or professional or personal reason for him to do so that causes problems. He's obsessed with finding out the truth like all private detective archetypes and in the end after he finds out he can't do nothing about it.
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": Noah Cross 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.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: Even if you've never seen the movie, you likely know that Faye Dunaway is the female lead; a woman who hires JJ "Jake" Gittes, so when a woman who is decidedly not Dunaway turns up in the second scene seeking to hire Jake, it's pretty obvious this is a setup.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Father and grandfather in this case. Noah attempts to introduce himself as this to the young Katherine and get closer to her but Mrs. Mulwray refuses to let him.
  • 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.
  • Morton's Fork: Evelyn's final choice. She can either surrender to the police and try to explain the truth, which won't work because her father, who also raped her, has already made her look insane to everyone and likely she probably killed her husband in a jealous rage (and he has the money to pay off the right people), which will result in him probably taking custody of Katherine, or she can make herself look exactly like the violent murderer Noah has made her seem to be by pulling a gun and driving off, in the vague hope she and Katherine might make it out of Chinatown alive. She picks the latter, and as she's surrounded by armed police, her last try fails, she's killed, and Noah takes Katherine.
  • Nasal Trauma: Jake Gittes is warned not to continue his investigation by a knife-wielding thug (played by the director in a cameo) who ends up slicing one of his nostrils open. As such, Gittes spends the rest of the film with his nose bandaged.
  • Never My Fault: Noah Cross on being confronted by Gittes about whether he takes responsibility for raping Evelyn, mutters that he prefers not to blame himself, feeling that what he did was right to any man of his power and stature. This is patently not true as Evelyn says that Hollis Mulwray, who was the same class and stature as Cross, was a decent man. But for a man like Cross, morality is an option and not an obligation.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!:
    • Gittes gives Cross the only piece of evidence capable of proving him guilty of murdering Hollis Mulwray. Whoops. Although to be entirely fair to him on this one, he does have a gun pointed at his head at the time.
    • Calling the cops on Evelyn under the erroneous belief that she's the culprit.
  • No Woman's Land: Basically none of the women on-screen have it good for them. The Fake Mrs. Mulwray, the actress Ida Sessions, gets whacked to tie up loose ends. Evelyn Mulwray dies ignominiously like a criminal, her daughter/sister Katharine enters Noah Cross' clutchesnote , very likely being raped in turn. Even Curly's wife, the woman who was caught cheating by Jakes at the start of the film, is revealed to sport a very new and fresh-looking black-eye, hinting that Jake's investigation condemned her to a life of Domestic Abuse, and she has nothing but contempt for the "hero".
  • Noodle Incident: We never do find out exactly what happened in Chinatown when Jake was working there. All we know is that there was a girl, he tried to get involved and ended up making things worse.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Gittes repeatedly faces this problem. He judges events that on the basis of what he sees, looks reasonable, but actually turns out to be something entirely different. In his investigations tailing Hollis Mulwray and his "girlfriend", he assumes that it's an older man with his mistress when in fact it's a young girl with her surrogate father. He later sees Evelyn at home putting Katharine to bed with some medicine and assumes that Evelyn is holding her hostage, when in fact she's a mother concerned over her troubled daughter.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Only the very last scene of the movie takes place in that neighborhood of Los Angeles. However, it is used by Gittes as a metaphor for the crime-ridden nature of Los Angeles in the film.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The irritating clerk at the Hall of Records seems to be doing everything he can to be as unhelpful as humanly possible. It's generally implied that he's doing so because he knows the truth or at least has some hint about the water rights corruption and wants to discourage Jake.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Part of the shattering Downer Ending, as Jake's partners lead him away down a Chinatown street, after everything is lost.
  • 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.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Much of the film's plot and machinations and the tragedy happen because characters, for a variety of believable reasons, don't trust each other or they make wrong assumptions. It's notable that Evelyn finally gets killed by Escobar and Lopez, Gittes' Friend on the Force and not Cross. The way the finale plays out, with Evelyn firing on Cross and hitting his shoulder, and then absconding with Katharine, makes her look bad which leads the police to shoot at her instead.
  • Rape as Drama: How Katherine was conceived. Cross doesn't see it as rape or believe he did anything wrong of course.
  • 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 titles, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio, vintage Paramount logo, and old-fashioned scrolling credits.
    • The first shot of the film is a closeup of a series of black-and-white photographs (albeit far more sexually explicit than anything shown in the Old Hollywood), and then the camera pulls back to reveal cinematographer John Alonzo's lush amber period glow that looks a bit like Technicolor but is much richer.
  • The Reveal/Wham Line: Katherine turns out to be Mrs. Mulwray's sister AND her daughter, her Child by Rape from her evil father.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • Despite the film's title, it takes several hours to get to the actual Chinatown. Only the final scene of the movie is actually set there. But before then, Jake talks with Evelyn about how he used to work in Chinatown as a cop, saying that he did "as little as possible" on the job. He said: "[he] thought [he] was keeping someone from being hurt and actually [he] ended up making sure she was hurt." A similar scenario happens at the ending, were Evelyn's been shot and Noah's captured his daughter/granddaughter, Walsh ushers the signature line "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown". In this case, "Chinatown" refers to a situation that can't be helped … because the person trying help is out of their depth. Even though Jake's realized the truth about what's happening, he's too late — and the cops are too unwilling to give him a fair hearing. At the end of the movie, Jake's suffered the same nauseating defeat that he initially suffered when he worked as a cop in Chinatown the first time.
    • The bad guys in the film want to steal water which is a natural element already free in nature. But when you live in a desert community in California, the need for water can become desperate, especially when you consider that, in the film, L.A.'s in a drought. Hollis Mulwray wanted to make sure that the water would be publicly owned, but Noah Cross, his greedy partner, wanted to continue to own the water company privately so he'd be able to make a profit and, maybe more importantly, maintain power and control over the city via the water supply. Cross's trying to dominate a crucial natural resource, because if you can control one thing that's necessary for life (like water) naturally you can control everything else, outstripping or buying out the power of the mayor and others. Noah ultimately wants more than money — he wants absolute power.
    • Noah's incest of Evelyn when she was around 14 reflects the above point near perfectly. The incest is the same sort of crime as water theft, except on a personal level. Noah's secretly stealing water by misappropriating it and letting it run down channels and aqueducts at night. He's also misusing the nourishing power of water by hiding on his own land instead of letting it go to the people who are meant to have it. This can be seen as a metaphor for what he's doing to his own daughter—he's abusing her and mistreating the human power to bring forth life in the same way that he's abusing and mistreating a natural resource and its ability to bring forth life.
    • During a scene where Jake and Evelyn are making out, Jake points out a black mark in the green part of Evelyn's eye that's apparently a flaw in the iris. The flaw in Evelyn's eye symbolizes the flaw in the system itself — Evelyn's a good character, but she's personally experienced the corruption bred by greed and by the hunger for power. Her father is stealing the city's water, and he's had a child with her through incest. From a distance, everything probably looks okay — but when you look closely, something's off. That's been Jake's experience throughout the whole movie. He sees that Hollis' death isn't a suicide and that he's been set up…after he learns that the woman who hired him wasn't really Evelyn. These inconsistencies eventually reveal an even more corrupt and evil state of appears than Jake could've realized. The flaw in Evelyn's iris initially suggests that there's something wrong with her—like maybe she's in on her father's scheme. But in reality, the flaw lies in the family she comes from, specifically in her monstrous father.
    • If Noah had just chucked Hollis' dead corpse into the ocean, Jake Gittes never would've been able to figure out most of the mystery. After the police pull Hollis' drowned corpse out of the reservoir, Jake goes to see the dead body at the city morgue. The mortician—appropriately named Morty—notes the irony of the situation, commenting to Jake they were in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner still somehow drowned. The method of death is something that seems logical on its surface, but the cops are able to look into it enough to realize that someone set Hollis up for adultery to make his death look like a suicide. Yet, they don't discover as much as Jake, and don't realize that Evelyn didn't kill Hollis—the murderer was Noah.
    • The American Dream in this film is really an American Nightmare. And the entire populace—with the exception of Jake Gittes—is totally blind and oblivious to all of this. We see a trippy photonegative version of the American Dream. There's see a super-rich guy, Noah Cross, devouring the economy with the help of a bunch of henchmen like Claude Mulvihill and willing white-collar drones like Russ Yelburton. People lower down on the economic scale, like the prostitute Ida Sessions, end up getting used (and/or killed). And the old people in the retirement home who unwittingly cover up Noah's water-theft scheme? They're being gamed too. If the American Dream is dead, Noah and his boys are the worms eating its corpse. All that the hero, Jake, can do is try to help Evelyn escape the horror of life with her father—and he even fails at that. He has no aspirations towards the American Dream of his own that we see, no house on the hill he's striving for. Aside from trying to save the innocent, Jake's one motive is survival. He's like a more desperate, less-physically-skilled Bear Grylls.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog Story: Jake tries to help Evelyn escape California with Katherine but unfortunately he already called the police. Despite his numerous attempts to avoid them, Noah and the police eventually catch up with them anyway, moments before they were due to leave. Recognizing it as hopeless, Evelyn tries to take the last stand of threatening them with a gun so that she can take Katherine. This plays right into Noah's already-executed plan of making Evelyn look like a Hysterical Woman who killed her husband out of insane jealousy, the police shoot and kill Evelyn, and the hysterical Katherine is dragged away from her mother's body towards the triumphant Noah, who, inevitably, is going to rape her and perpetuate the cycle using the huge amount of money he's already earned.
  • 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.
    • Polański's cameo as the "Man with a Knife" is often seen as a reference to his first 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.
    • Also Ida Sessions aka the fake Evelyn Mulwray, who — despite only appearing in the film onscreen and alive once — convinces Gittes to spy on Hollis Mulwray and thereby sets the plot into motion.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Between Gittes and Evelyn.
  • The Sociopath: Noah Cross will go down in history as one of the most heartless villains ever put to film.
  • 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 pocket watch under the tire of Mulwray's car, so that he can know at what time he left from the time the watch was run over.
  • Sunshine Noir: The beautiful, golden cinematography of the city and its environs contrasts greatly with what actually goes on inside it. Nonetheless many scenes in the middle, and key moments take place at night. Namely when Jake gets his nose cut, when he and Evelyn are on the trail of the mystery and the ending where Evelyn dies.
  • 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. And the catastrophic dam collapse referenced by Hollis Mulwray at the city council meeting was inspired by the real-life failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, which killed over 400 people.
  • Villainous Gentrification: Chinatown's elaborate layered plot concerns an artificial drought as a result of water being dammed out, to chase farmers from their land, so that the terrain can be bought on the cheap, developed, and suburbanized. It succeeds. The kicker: the film is based on the real-life California water wars, which ended the same way.
  • 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! My father and I.... Understand? Or is it too tough for you?"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learned who killed Ida Sessions, although it was probably Mulvahill and/or The Man With the Knife
  • Would Hit a Girl: Jake slaps Evelyn repeatedly to get the truth out of her. When he comes to call in a favor 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, and it does get across how slimy the American upper crust at the time was.
  • 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


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