I first saw "Chinatown " in the early 1980s, (I had admired Jack Nicholson's performance in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest") and I have found it is a film I can revisit frequently and find something new to admire each time. The script by Robert Towne is constantly engaging and brings to the fore the basic humanity of his characters, as well as the complexities of the themes of morality, corruption, greed, and, of course, sex.
Roman Polanski's direction is little short of perfect as he slowly embroils Jake Gittes (and the audience) in the web of intrigue and corruption that lies beneath the surface of the film. We share Jake's point of view as he embarks on what appears to be a relatively normal case of adultery, but is soon plunged into a mystery of far greater scope and depth.
In the course of the film a whole variety of "film noir" themes are treated, such as amorality ("In the right circumstances, man is capable of anything" - Noah Cross), corruption (the abuse of power and influence to further one's own interests at the expense of others'), greed (Noah Cross is a millionaire who seeks to invest in "the future"), and sex (with an example of perhaps the ultimate indulgence in amoral sexual values).
Jake Gittes makes his living from investigating others' "mistakes" or indiscretions. He runs a successful private investigations firm with a couple of well-dressed assistants, from a well-appointed and very presentable office. Yet beneath this veneer of respectability is a fairly sleazy and parasitic occupation, dealing with shabby and wretched goings-on in society. Indeed, throughout the film the "reality" of these shady goings-on (extra-marital affairs, deprivation of water to farmers, land sale deals, murder) is hidden beneath a facade of respectability and decorum. Noah Cross (John Huston) holds an elevated and highly respected position in society, yet is guilty of the most heinous crimes, unknown to the general public.
It seems that just about every character has something to hide, with the possible exception of Hollis Mulwray, whose honesty and integrity are the very reasons for his death. The suggestion appears to be that principle and truth are regarded as the exception rather than the rule, and will not be tolerated by the network of apparently respectable "leaders" of the community who will do anything to realise their dreams (indeed it is the pursuit of truth that leads Jake into danger), and whose continued success is dependent on the tacit collaboration of others in their shady schemes.
Yet these crimes, awful though they may be, are not as shocking or wild as we might suppose they will be. The true interest of the film lies principally in the uncovering of the plot through the eyes of the very human, and very fallible, Jake Gittes and his associates. Though the film is plot-driven, it works because we share Jake's viewpoint and share his problems in understanding what is going on.
Jake Gittes is above all human, and has human failings. He is worldly and perhaps disillusioned, but he is not cynical. He still believes in truth and appears to genuinely want to help Hollis Mulwray after the "revelations" concerning him and his affair in the papers. He also tries to dissuade the original "Mrs Mulwray" from initiating the investigation in order to avoid pain for herself and her husband. When paid by the genuine Mrs Mulwray, he wishes to continue the investigation because he wants to know the truth and he knows a crime has been committed - he is driven, but certainly not by greed.
Yet he is no great hero either. He is aware of his own sleazy background and tries to rise above it by being fairly open and honest about his activities, but (somewhat paradoxically) respecting privacy as well. As he says, he is in business and is simply trying to make ends meet.
Human and reasonable, Jake is stunned by Noah Cross's greed and his willingness to accept the inevitability of his own corruption. Clearly Jake disapproves of Cross's actions and schemes. He can't comprehend Cross's lack of scruples and his willingness to take others' lives, and all for money which he doesn't need.
In a very real sense, that is what the film is about - Jake's slow unfurling of clues and events to be faced with a situation he cannot fathom, triggered by motives he neither approves of nor can fully comprehend. Men are what they are and must live according to their cut. Noah Cross tries to impose his will on society, while Jake must live in that society, but with his own notions of principle and morality. Jake does not seek to impose his will, but merely to understand what is happening and he wants to be able to help as a result of his understanding. However, it seems the human condition cannot be fully explained or understood. Responsibility for certain actions may be ascertained, but what drives and motivates people cannot be adequately explained. As Noah Cross says, "In the right circumstances, man is capable of anything".
Jake's is the voice of reason and humanity, failing to make itself heard above clamour of the vagaries of human nature.
Perhaps inevitably comparison will be made to 1940s films noirs such as "The Maltese Falcon" and the Philip Marlow thrillers, especially with the involvement of John Huston as Noah Cross. There are, however, important differences. In the 40s films the hero is seemingly omniscient and appears to exercise a degree of control through his understanding (and perhaps even sharing) of the amoral viewpoint, though ultimately he comes down on the side of "morality". He manages to affect the outcome of events through clever manipulation of these events and characters.
In Jake Gittes' case there is a clear lack of understanding and a dogged determination to fight for principle. Indeed in the end, Jake's intervention may even have brought about dire consequences. We are clearly in the same existential world of the 40s thrillers, in which actions bring about reactions and each character can influence the final outcome, but here the hero's influence can be negative as well as positive, despite all his good intentions.
"Chinatown", then, becomes a metaphor for what is unfathomable. A place (or state of mind) where truth and justice count for little, and where vice and greed can gain the upper hand as man follows his instincts, and codes of conduct and ethics cannot truly apply. Or even a place where events may occur for no apparent reason, or quite by chance.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page, I hope you found it of some interest. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss further these reflections, or the film itself. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .