In the 60’s and 70’s the classic genre picture was being reexamined and used to express darker themes. The Wild Bunch replaced Stagecoach, Cabaret replaced Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Godfather replaced The Public Enemy. But film noir was the Hollywood genre that already explored dark themes, so a revisionist noir film would have to be completely devoid of hope. This darkest of all films arrived in 1974 in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Through it’s complex plot, layered characters, and perfect direction Chinatown masterfully expresses the frightening and honest (or frighteningly honest) message that the world is filled with evil and imperfection, and that sometimes there’s just nothing to do to stop it.
Every role that should be found in a classic film noir is in Chinatown: the private detective, the femme fatale, the clueless police chief, the murder victim, and of course the heartless villain. Those are not roles that belong in a light-hearted tale, so it’s odd to say each one of those are darker in Polanski’s film, but it is in fact true. J.J. (Jake) Gittes (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson), the detective, is never five steps ahead of the plot, but always five behind. Evelyn Mulwray (a haunting performance from Faye Dunaway), the “femme fatale”, lacks any of the control her role is supposed to carry, but is instead a victim. The police chief is not only clueless but most likely corrupt. The murder victim was killed for being the only truly “good” character in the entire film. And Noah Cross, the heartless villain, goes beyond heartless raping both his daughter and the city of Los Angeles.
There is a motif throughout the film of pairs, where one of the pair is broken or flawed. Whether it’s the watch, the glasses, Evelyn’s eyes, Jake’s nostrils, or the two bodies in the car at the end of the film, there is a constant focus on showing things that are broken in the world next to things that are not. This motif expresses the constant imperfection of the entire world. For every thing that works there is something that is broken.
The titular place of the film is not meant to be taken literally, though the final scene does occur there. Instead it is meant to symbolize a world where evil triumphs over good, a world of complete helplessness. Gittes recalls his past as a police officer in Chinatown. They were told that anything they would do was futile so they should just do nothing. It’s very clear that at some point J.J. Gittes betrayed this advice and did something, and it’s also very clear that from this some sort of tragedy was born. Unfortunately the evil encountered in Chinatown is not confined to one sect of town, but all of Los Angeles, and maybe all the world.
To understand the film’s dark view on the world it is essential to look at the character of Noah Cross. Cross murders his business partner and son-in-law, steals the water supply from Los Angeles, and rapes and impregnates his own daughter. His philosophy on life is explained in one haunting sentence: “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and place, they’re capable of anything.” And at the end of the film Noah Cross gets away with all of his actions. His daughter is shot dead and he gains custody of his granddaughter-daughter. His corrupt dealings in the water are also left undiscovered by anyone but the helpless Jake. As the film ends and the famous line is uttered the command to “forget it” is impossible to follow for both the audience and for Jake. Jake will not forget what happened, though he has no choice but to stop fighting.
The ending that Polanski decided on was not the one in the script. Originally Evelyn shoots her father, and is then arrested since none of his immoral and illegal actions were known. This is of course not a happy ending, but the bad guy still does get punished. However when looking at Polanski’s life the ending he decided on makes perfect sense. First, it is important to note that Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor, and watched both of his parents get dragged off to a concentration camp as he escaped. Second, and more relevant to this Los Angeles-based film, Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson Family in Los Angeles while pregnant with their child five years prior to this film’s release. Polanski initially turned down Chinatown because he did not want to have to come back to L.A. to film it. The horrifying world of Los Angeles depicted in Chinatown reflects the horrifying role Los Angeles played in Polanski’s life. This is a film without hope made by a man who lost all of his half a decade earlier. In Chinatown the bad guys win, and that’s certainly not something a wisecracking, good-intentioned, cliché private eye can stop.
My question to all of you is do you feel like Chinatown is devoid of hope? What do you feel it is saying about life?
(Also I tried to keep my analysis thematic, but can I just say that Chinatown is the most perfectly made movie ever? I mean seriously! Absolutely amazing!)
Great piece Drew.
Hope isn’t in Roman’s lexicon. There is only survival.
Roman didn’t want to come back to Los Angeels. Too many bad memories of the Manson massacre. But Robert Evans and Robert Towne’s script — and Jack — proved too tempting to pass up. As a result he made masterpeice, and one of the key films about L.A.
Gittes is a few steps ahead of the plot, but several behind its underpinnings. That’s why he loses out in the end.
Thanks! I think Polanski is brilliant in that while lacking any sense of hope he works within incredibly entertaining and fun genres (horror, noir, comedy) and as a result he gets these oddly twisted and somehow equally watchable and depressing masterpieces.
He’s so perfect for this film, because his view of LA, and the world, is so dark. He manages to make the film feel so honest and true, because as sad as it is, this is the kind of world he knows.
I still think Gittes tends to be a few steps behind the plot. I mean, yes he finds the glasses in the pond and figures it all out brilliantly, except he’s wrong. It’s not that he’s not as intelligent as every other Sam Spade out there… it’s just that this case is much more complex.
True. As a detective he’s professional and very smart. It’s beneath the surface of things where he falters. He thinks he’s figured Evelyn out, but the great climactic "She’s my sister AND my daughter!’ scene is truly shocking to him. It upends everything.
And of course, who would ever guess that? It’s too shocking for even Jake, who has had plenty of disturbing experiences, to fathom. The fact that Gittes is out of his element is extremely hard to take considering that as a private detective, and former police officer, nothing should really be out of his element. It’s why the end works so well. In any other situation it’d be hard to believe that someone who didn’t give up after his nostril was sliced in two, would just walk away. But because of the futility of it all it sadly makes perfect sense.
Gittes existence and unwillingness to let things go for most of the duration of the film could be seen as a form of hope. I find Double Indemnity to be much darker.
But he does let things go! Gittes is the last hope, and when he gives up, well, it’s all over.
Interesting. Explain. Because I feel like in Double Indemnity he pretty much brings it upon himself. There’s no Noah Cross in Double Indemnity.
Well, when the film ends Gittes is in a daze and we can assume he’s done but he did fight the good fight, sort of, and the fact that someone was there to fight the evil at all is somewhat hopeful, even if they lose.
I think the fact that there is no Noah Cross to pin the world’s darkness on in Double Indemnity makes it darker, in a way.
I like that view a lot! Gittes presence throughout the film is hopeful, because maybe the next time he takes on a case like this he won’t lose. I really, really like that!
And I do see what you’re saying about Double Indemnity. I guess my problem is I struggle to really sympathize with Walter I mean if Wilder had gotten me to relate to him and then had him commit an evil act and pay for it, then I’d see it as darker, but I just don’t relate to him. I see it more as a morality tale than a story exposing the evil in all of us.
(Btw I love Double Indemnity, so I’m in no way criticizing the film.)
Cool, I could also make a case that DI is less dark than Chinatown. I suppose it’s two different kinds of darkness:)
Yeah definitely. And you are correct that the darkness in Chinatown is all inside of one true source (more the system itself than Noah Cross), and that were it to be defeated evil would vanish. I guess the issue is it’s very much not defeated.
Man, Drew, you gotta space these think pieces out more, you’re stepping on your own train!
As to your question, no, I don’t think Chinatown is devoid of all hope exactly although as you point out it is close. The fact that the little men like Gittes don’t have any power may leave them helpless against people like Noah Cross, but they themselves aren’t inherently bad or as corrupted as Noah which means there is some decency out there even if it is powerless within the system it inhabits. That is to say that man himself isn’t without a chance of redemption or hope, but it would require a change in the system in which a decent man must operate. In this sense it is a lot like the Arthur Penn movie Night Moves, which is also excellent.
A film like The Conqueror Worm aka Witchfinder General, I think, goes beyond that and suggests that the world can corrupt the innocent or the good and make them like the corrupt and powerful and actively destroy the decency within rather than just render it powerless. The Conqueror Worm feels like the world is doomed, that we are all beyond saving and that each one of us would join in on the destruction if the right conditions were met unlike in Chinatown where there is a feeling that some men do have a basic sense of decency which one can’t entirely break even if one can render it impotent. One can also look to some films by Bresson, Bunuel, Haneke, some of Bergman (if you are more religiously inclined), and quite a few others like Kiss Me Deadly, Detour, The Heiress, Lady in a Cage and a great many more for a less hopeful vision depending on where one puts the emphasis or on what one personally believes a darker outcome would be. Is it having a moral code but being powerless to implement it, or is it to lose ones way all together and give in to the darkness, or perhaps even to not realize there was another choice to be made in the first place. None of that is to say any one of those films is better, or worse for their outlooks, just that there is certainly room for debating which path would be the worst to follow. Heck, as David hinted at, even Polanski has made other films every bit as bleak as this. It’s kind of a specialty of his.
Hahaha I got one more in me for tonight!
I definitely see what you’re saying, and I do agree that a world without anyone moral is more devoid of hope than a world where those who are moral are powerless. As I said earlier just because Gittes lost this round, doesn’t mean he’ll lose the next one. His very presences I guess is in a sense hopeful. Then again if everyone was immoral, would morals even exist? Though that’s not even a world I want to think about. Amorality scares me. :)
It’s interesting, the noirs you list are ones that I have yet to see, but are high up on my list!
Oh and thanks for the recommendations of Night Moves and The Witchfinder General. Both are on NetFlix Watch Instantly!
Out of curiosity Drew, do you think Chinatown is darker than In a Lonely Place in terms of the trajectory the protagonist takes? Is a man like Steele worse off than a man like Gittes? I mean Gittes is just a pawn of more powerful men but Steele creates his own sort of hell, albeit perhaps not entirely wittingly. I could see an argument either way and I think the comparison between the two offers some interesting contrasts in world views.
That’s an interesting question that I don’t quite know how to answer. I’m trying to decide what scares me more: the evils of society or the evils of myself!
This may be an arrogant response, but for me personally I find Chinatown more disturbing because I think I’m much more likely to be fighting against “the man” then be fighting my violent impulses. I’m certainly not perfect. And my view on IaLP being about someone who doesn’t know how to function outside fiction is directly inspired from myself (if you ever want to hear a story about how Magnolia and Bright Star combined to leave me incredibly heart broken I’ll tell it!). That being said my flaws are not similar enough to Dix’s (I have anger problems, but I don’t think I’d ever take them out on another human being… walls and poles do just fine).
However overall I’d much rather be in J.J. Gittes position than Dixon Steele’s, so I guess objectively speaking I find In a Lonely Place more disturbing and having a darker world view (assuming the ‘world’ is filled with with Dixon Steeles).
Yes, the ending of Chinatown did make me feel like there was no hope in terms of escaping from evil. It’s a very pessimistic ending. What does it say about life? That things end this way sometimes and I think Polanski was being a realist here. The ending of the movie makes a point of looking squarely at the way reality is sometimes. Many people don’t like those kinds of endings for movies. Generally they want to feel like things change around for the better. Ending this way isn’t an escape from real life, which is what some people go to the movies to experience.
I certainly do not go to movies to escape real life, and I think the ending to Chinatown is brilliant and perfect. I guess my issue is that I tend to want the films I love to also appeal to me in the sense that I agree with their message (you should see the way I’ve spun Dogville!). I happen to be an optimist (or try to be) and an idealist (really try hard to be!), and Chinatown doesn’t really go with this. I guess the reason I’m happy that Mike and Greg have shown me the hope within the despair of Polanski’s film is that now not only do I love the film, but I love what the film is saying, and it’s nice, though not necessary, when these line up.
That’s just it though, the contrast between the two films is that Steele is something of an aberration within his world, he’s a darker man than most of those around him. He even seeks or feeds on that darkness as part of his craft, or perhaps his craft arises from the darkness that he feels is a part of himself which already separates him from others. So he is isolated by necessity whereas in Gittes world, Gittes feeds himself on the weakness in others but is fed upon by one like those he serves as a snoop, but Cross is someone who doesn’t allow for weakness. he may share some commonality with others of those Gittes spies on or spies for, but Cross doesn’t care about his “failings” he doesn’t even see them as failings at all. He is beyond such distinctions. He merely wants to use Gittes for a purpose like any other tool, he isn’t invested in the outcome the same way as the client in the beginning of the film, he just wants his toy back so he uses Gittes to achieve that end. Other people are inconsequential to him in a way they aren’t even to Steele who tries to shield himself against others but can’t quite succeed. Steele is powerless against his own impulses in a way that is somewhat similar to Cross perhaps, but Steele still cares about others enough, or his own “soul” enough for that to matter to him whereas Croos doesn’t give a damn. I guess the question is really who suffers more in their relative positions of powerlessness; a man who can’t change the way things work and must watch while others despoil the world and those he cares for, or someone who is powerless against himself and can’t connect with the world enough to even be in Gittes position since close relationships are impossible for him? Is it worse to have something you care about taken from you or to lose it because of who you are? Personally I think the latter is worse but I could live with it more than the former since it arose from within me. If that makes sense.
Oh, and about the postings, fine put ‘em all out at once, but you do know that this is like a government official doing a news release on a Friday afternoon. I mean it’s Sunday night, there aren’t many people around and these posts could get lost in the pages if you don’t come back and, at least, bump them later this week. Strategy, Drew, strategy!
Haha I’ll bump ‘em no worries. If I write a paper on a film I can’t help, but want to discuss the films immediately! I can’t wait around till I think the most people will reply! I’m not nearly that patient. :)
I think if we’re comparing Noah Cross and Dixon Steele then Dix is undoubtedly the preferable choice. I think it goes back to the old argument of amorality vs. immorality. Personally I’d take immorality any day. Cross’ complete lack of morals is terrifying and not something to admire even if he does lead a happier life than Dix. The conflict for me arises more in comparing J.J. Gittes and Dixon Steele.
I just brought up the Cross comparison to create another reference point for Steele since his issues are in some ways closer to Cross’ than Gittes in terms of how his personality manifests itself, but obviously not in the toll it takes on him which would be the point of comparison to Gittes and the main contrast I was interested in asking about. It is interesting though, I don’t imagine many people would want to identify with Cross even though he is the one really well adjusted person amongst the three of them in terms of contentment with self and peace of mind, at least to all outward appearances, plus he’s got the cash and the chicks, oh, no, forget I mentioned that last thing…ew…
Hahahahaha nothing funnier than incest, am I right?
I guess it’s not that anyone would identify with Cross but instead merely claim the situation he is in to be a positive one. Some might argue that because he does not see what he does as wrong, and because he is content that were we him that’d be the best choice. As who we currently are we cannot desire to be like him, but if we had his set of morals then being him would be superb.
I am NOT someone who believes this point. :)
Oh, and Drew, I can almost guarantee that you’ll dig Night Moves given what I know about your taste in movies, and I strongly suspect you’d think highly of The Heiress as well. As a personal recommendation, one that I am less sure of how you’ll respond, though, I will push Lady in a Cage since that film isn’t as likely to be proffered by many others due to it being directed by a relative unknown. It plays on the Oedipus myth, amongst other things, and suggests that the our world can be fucked up because of our best intentions not despite them. It’s something of an odd film, but I think it’s great, in a really dark way. I forgot to add The Seventh Victim to my previous mini-list, and that too is well worth a gander if you are in the mood for dark.
Thanks for the suggestions!
And thanks for the discussion! I was losing a bit of faith in Mubi when no one was replying! Thanks for restoring it to where it was before this thread. ;)
My pleasure Drew. I often just ignore the board if there aren’t any good film or thematic discussions going on so it’s great to see two films I’ve watched relatively recently getting some talk. I’m sure others will join in once the weekend is over and they return from whatever drunken shenanigans they were involved in. Besides, I gotta show some respect for one of the only other people out there who recognizes what a great film In the Cut is.
Out of curiosity what is the third film in your “want to talk about” queue?
Breaking the Waves… I posted my essay… but it seems it’s already been lost on the forum! It’s titled “The Sinner and the Saint”.
I actually rewatched In the Cut a couple weeks ago and was very happy to have my original opinion confirmed. It’s always a nervous experience rewatching a film you love, but almost everyone else doesn’t. I’m glad this time it turned out I was in fact right, and it’s the rest of the movie-watching community that’s wrong. :)
Damn, I also forgot to ask you whether you think Gittes is in some way inadvertently responsible for the fate that befalls everyone in the film. As you point out when you are talking about the meaning of “Chinatown” within the film, it’s sometimes better to do nothing and Gittes didn’t take that advice even though he should have realized that was the case. So the question then becomes whether Gittes was necessary for the horrible ending to take place or whether he just happened to be the guy involved. The two ways of thinking about it create slightly different emphases, even if only it is only how Gittes may perceive the issue and not how it might play out in a more “real” sense where Gittes certainly wouldn’t be an irreplaceable part of the operation.
Technically would all of what happened have happened if Jake hadn’t been a nosy fella (hehe)? No. Is it his fault? Also, no.
If we are assuming that failure is not the result every time Gittes or somebody like Gittes tries to be a hero and do the right thing then what happens in Chinatown is merely the possible tragedy that sometimes results in something much better. In this story he fails, but maybe in the next one he doesn’t. Let’s say he got Noah arrested. The positivity of that result makes this one worth it. Does that make any sense? I’m not talking about parallel universes or anything crazy like that. Just that pushing the situation will either lead to extreme negative or extreme positive, but because the later is possible you have to try, but because the former is possible you have to accept what can occur.
But in the world of the film can you make the assumption that failure to stop someone like Cross isn’t a given? With the power structure against him and Gittes own inability to see or even imagine all that is going on around him could he ever succeed or did he come to realize at the end film that not only are the forces arrayed against him too great to combat and too uncaring to assist him, but that he, or someone like him, will be used as the instrument of their own destruction. What we were talking about earlier would shift if the idea that those in power will use those like Gittes not only to get what they want but to use them in a way that destroys any sense of opposition left in them thus making it easier to do what they desire in the future renders Gittes not only impotent but an unavoidable accessory to his own moral undoing. It could perhaps be said that Cross required a man with Gittes somewhat shabby but earnest moral code to get what he wanted, and that would mean that the usefulness of a moral code is in abetting the immoral with their actions since by having one you are trustworthy, predictable, and usable. If that is the case then the film could be seen as bleaker than what we were talking about a little while ago.
(I’m just throwing different ways of thinking about the film out there, I’m not making a real stand for any one of them as being more correct than another.)
My question to all of you is do you feel like Chinatown is devoid of hope? What do you feel it is saying about life?-————————————————-
The real question is, as a work of art, is CHINATOWN depressing to a level that’s unwatchable or tragic in how it views society? That’s a more interesting question than if the film is hopeless or not. One thing that’s important is that CHINATOWN was a box-office success and is now an accepted and loved classic of American cinema.
Thom Andersen in his documentary-essay LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF argues that the reason this film is popular because its bleak view is filtered with a great heaving villain and a fixation of conspiracy. He argues that the film’s pessimism can be read as a kind of comfort in that it presents social processes as a vast conspiracy with a bad guy whose success paradoxically allows the public to feel that whatever society they live in, its because of some bad apples that everything is cursed rather than specific failures of society which audiences as citizens participate in.
I always felt that CHINATOWN is misread because people are vowed over by Jack Nicholson’s star presence over his character’s myopia and great mistakes. It’s very rare to watch a film where someone competent makes mistakes in a convincing manner and that’s part of the greatness of CHINATOWN. there are parts of the film where Polanski seems to be scathing of his character’s affected dandyism.
The only hopeful element is that Evelyn Mulwray who is seen with so much suspicion and ill-regard turns out to be a heroic figure and as moving a figure of motherhood as any in film history. Her death is awful and brutal but its also tragic and so exalting.
This search for “hope” is really quite silly. Are any of you people aware of the particulars of Ro an Polanski’s life?
The desire to wrest “hope” from “Chinatown” is sub-adolescent.