Holy Water: The Sinister Los Angeles of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown

J.J. 'Jake Gittes' (Jack Nicholson, left) confronts Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, right).

If you thought film noir was long dead and gone, think twice. The genre – if you can even call it that – has never vanished from the landscape. The rumors about its demise have been largely exaggerated – for the simple reason that there have been many noteworthy classics since the heyday of film noir in the 1940s and 1950. One of them is Chinatown by Polish director Roman Polanski, if only because it reminds us of former days and highlights of the genre.The movie is set in the Los Angeles of 1937 and harks back to historic disputes about the water rights in Southern California during the 1910s and 1920s.

The dubious private investigator J.J. ‘Jack’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to spy on her husband Hollis. As the architect of the city’s water system, Mulwray is in the center of the public eye and discussions. Jake is merely supposed to convict him of adultery, but the snoops soon finds out that he has been dealing with an imposter. The real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) appears in his office and confronts him. Soon after, Mulwray is found dead. Gittes becomes entangled in a web of lies, corruption, and scandals. Who has done Mulwray in? What does Evelyn have to hide? What’s the role of the city’s water supply? And what does Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (legendary director John Huston), Mulwray’s wealthy but sketchy former partner have to do with the whole thing?

Chinatown has everything you wish for in a good film noir. There’s a fascinating crime story, a sinister, crooked Los Angeles of the 1930s, Faye Dunaway as an attractive as well as volatile femme fatale, and a brilliant Jack Nicholson in one of his most outstanding starring roles. The unhealthy world with its shady characters sucks you in. Chinatown isn’t as dark as other noirs, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not as nightmarish.

Gittes is an antihero comparable to legendary investigators like Sam Spade from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon or Mike Hammer from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. He may not be as brutal in the measures he takes. Still Jake fits like a glove in this amoral environment. Yet despite his coolness, he initially leaves a rather dilettantish impression. We can identify with him, because Gittes never surrenders. He hangs in there – and all dirty secrets are revealed in a grandiose finale during a night in Chinatown.

The somewhat strange universe Roman Polanski’s direction transports us to from the very first moment is probably the most obvious reason to love the movie. What’s happening here? Whom can we trust? Despite the Californian sun, evil seems to lurk around every corner, and Jake himself is neither heroic nor moral. On the one hand, he’s in the dark for a long time. On the other hand, he’s an opportunist who merely tries to survive in his corrupt surroundings.

Yet he’s by far the most likable person in the film, and Jack Nicholson can give a wrecked character a decent amount of coolness like no-one else can. Gittes is a punching bag, but he nonetheless turns into a real skip-Jack. Even he, however, is unable to prevent the tragedy, no matter how hard he tries. The story might almost be taken out of real life.

In his final work in Hollywood, Roman Polanski proverbially throws both his protagonist and the viewers for loop. The starting position constantly changes. Jake and we run after clues, without ever truly get the gist of the whole situation. Gittes doesn’t know any more than we do while he fights through the twilight. He only finds back on the right track because somebody slips him a hint, not because he is a masterful investigator in the Sherlock Holmes vein. His broken nose makes him an incompetent snoop in several ways.

Faye Dunaway also does her part to confuse him and lure him into her trap at the same time. She and Jack Nicholson are on top of their game. Both of them were at the peak of his or her respective career back then, were nominated for Oscars in 1975, and won their first Academy Awards for other roles not much later.

There are some other (neo) noirs from the same era that are generally regarded as classics these days, most notably Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese. Chinatown, however, stands out since it’s a classic crime story with a fascinating narration. First of all, the film pays homage to thrillers by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Secondly, it’s a timeless tale. The struggle for water remains an issue. Chinatown is very realistic in itself. Even Jack Nicholson, who tends to have a soft spot for over-the-top performances, feels almost restrained and down-to-earth here.

The Library of Congress rated Roman Polanski’s epic as a movie worth to be conserved for cultural, historical, and aesthetic reasons. Apart from the two leading actors, the film received Oscar nominations in nine other categories, even though the film only took home a single trophy. Roman Polanski left the United States because of a sex scandal caused by his affiliation with an underage girl. He hasn’t returned to Hollywood since. Chinatown will most likely remain his final work shot on American soil, and it’s – by all means – not a bad way to go out.

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