Finding an Identity in Chinatown

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Words: 1754 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1754|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Film noir frequently explores the extremes of the American character, illuminating its dark and treacherous capabilities but also its capacity for decency and truth. Although many critics agree that the quintessential period for noirs occurred during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown re-invokes the tradition, functioning “both as a homage to and a critique of classic noirs” (Graydon 41). Like Raymond Chandler before him, Polanski utilizes the rapidly expanding Los Angeles climate to play out his vision of the ultimate noir: by employing the tradition of the justice-seeking detective who must navigate through the corrupt city and past the femme fatale’s dishonest advances, Polanski highlights the brutality of noir while still providing a modern take on the classic genre.

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Like so many of the 1940’s and 1950’s film noirs which were set in either Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, Chinatown takes place in L.A. in 1937. The city of Los Angeles itself has been an integral component of the genre, especially to the works of Chandler whose detective Phillip Marlowe can often be found on the hunt throughout various parts of the town (Hausladen 49). The urban sprawl has even been described as a “labyrinth” by author Nicholas Christopher, and as a “key to entering the psychological and aesthetic framework of the film noir” (Hausladen 48). Polanski takes these concepts to the extreme in Chinatown as his protagonist Jake Gittes is in both a psychological and a physical maze during his investigation of Hollis Mulwray’s death.

After Mr. Mulwray’s death, Gittes does some night sleuthing down by the city’s reservoirs, hopping a chain link fence and searching the inside premises for clues. Polanski’s camera captures Gittes’ face behind the fence multiple times during this scene, as the images suggest that the detective’s sights and abilities are somewhat limited due to the vast and bare landscape. As Gittes walks through the empty reservoir, his character is often isolated on frame along with the long open channels which appear to be a physical maze—these channels only lead him to more twists and turns, just before they suddenly fill with water to baffle Gittes as he investigates the homicide cases of the victims who have ironically drowned in the middle of a desert drought.

The city of L.A. has not only been transformed into both a figurative and literal labyrinth by Polanski, but also “a city and culture marked by ambiguity, trying to find its identity” (Hausladen 49). The concept of uncertainty is a significant one to Chinatown, as both the detective and the audience often find themselves disoriented throughout the narrative. The history of L.A., its lack of an identity, and the sense of a lingering ‘past’ all combine within the film to contaminate the characters (Cordaiy 121). The Sydney-based author Hunter Cordaiy explains that “this sense of ‘past’ is essential to all noir stories (one of the most famous examples is Out of the Past [Jacques Tourner, 1947])” (121). In Polanski’s Chinatown, the past is an invisible, yet felt presence throughout the film: Gittes has had a past incident in L.A.’s Chinatown, and although Evelyn Mulwray inquires as to whether or not a woman Gittes had once loved died there, the absolute truth is never revealed to either her or the audience; Evelyn herself has a horrifying past which she can not escape, being raped by her father Noah Cross at 14 and giving birth to his child which she now must hide and protect; Evelyn’s father Noah Cross and the murdered Hollis Mulwray were once joint owners of the water and electric supply of L.A., and their past connections and history are the driving forces for Gittes’ investigation. With all of Chinatown’s central figures, “there is a sense that no character will ever ‘escape’ their history or what the city has done to them (Cordaiy 121).

While Polanski invokes the tradition of the Los Angeles setting and the ‘sense of past’ to pay homage to the classic noirs, he also primarily does so by having his story revolve around a detective. The screenwriter Robert Towne, who collaborated with Polanski for the script, even admitted that he began the writing process “with the Philip Marlowe prototype…a tarnished knight” (Hausladen 57). But unlike Marlowe and the other detectives of the 1940’s and 1950’s who nearly always appeared to be one-step ahead of the villains while simultaneously being in control of all peripheral situations, Gittes is oblivious to many of his surroundings and the connections between people and events—“thus, it is a restrained characterization of the old Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe tradition” (Gehring 19).

Although Gittes both lives alone and was a past member of the police force like most noir detectives, his character’s abilities to perceive danger and to fend-off those violent threats appear to be significantly weaker than the typical noir detective. In a scene where Polanski makes his cameo, Gittes is apprehended by Polanski’s character “Man with Knife” and another henchman. Unlike the classic detective who would either overcome the villain’s goons or take the beating (but bare no physical scars afterwards), Polanski’s “Man with Knife” gruesomely slices a giant slit in Gittes’ left nostril, leaving him vulnerable and bleeding profusely. Throughout the next half of the film, Gittes is forced to sport an over-sized white bandage on his face, now becoming the butt of the jokes rather than displaying the detectives’ normal quick-witted charm.

Not only does Gittes appear physically weak while wearing the white bandage, but Polanski also strips the detective of his physically masculine and dominate attributes all together. The classical noir detectives dress in scruffy clothing and live in small apartments that represent their independence from both the society and the law (Cordaiy 120); they also tend to have little money and are forced to either exploit clients or take any type of case to secure some capital. Gittes is depicted as exploiting his clients when he sells photos of the supposedly cheating Hollis Mulwray to the local papers, yet “(he) is immaculately dressed and has a detective agency with a secretary and two operatives” (Cordaiy 120). Instead of appearing tough and independent, Gittes appears sleek, refined, and dependent on his co-workers as he tells Ida Sessions, (the impersonating Evelyn Mulwray), that he is unable to hear her case privately or without the help of his two associates.

While Chinatown destroys the notion of the omniscient detective (Cordaiy 122), it also re-imagines and recasts the role of the femme fatale. The typical femme fatales appear to be figures of pure malevolence—lying, cheating, and killing their way to the top in pursuit of a position of wealth and power. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is perhaps the classic example, but Polanski’s femme fatale is hardly comparable to her in any light. The actions of the classic femme fatale are often prompted by a painful past or an unhealthy relationship with an abusive lover—(Kathie Moffat’s relationship with Whit Sterling in Out of the Past is a prime illustration of this); conceivably, an agonizing past is one of the only things that Polanski’s Evelyn Mulwray has in common with these femmes. Polanski again takes a noir concept to the extreme, using the painful past of the incestuous rape perpetrated by Evelyn’s father to motivate her actions. Not only have these past experiences instilled psychological damage within Evelyn like so many of the other classic femme fatales, but it has also produced a tangible manifestation of this pain—a child that is both Evelyn’s daughter and sister.

Polanski’s film sticks to the tradition of the detective becoming romantically and sexually involved with the femme fatale, but unlike the convention, Evelyn Mulwray does not use the detective’s sexual lust or desires against him. While Phyllis Dietrichson uses sex to seduce and persuade Walter Neff into killing her husband in Double Indemnity, Evelyn Mulwray’s character actually likes Gittes, seeing him as an unfortunate bystander caught-up in her tragic story. Evelyn’s past prompts her to conceal the truth from Gittes, but through her perspective, she sees this as doing him a favor, saying: “You think you know what you’re dealing with, Mr. Gittes, but you don’t.” Although the detective Gittes is involved in a plot way beyond his recognition, he still pursues in attempting to aid the psychologically wounded Evelyn who functions both as Chinatown’s femme fatale and good girl.

In classic noir, the femme fatale must be either apprehended or eliminated, while the good girl must be protected in order to restore balance at the end of the film; but seeing as Evelyn functions as both the femme fatale and the good girl who Gittes attempts to help rescue from her psychotic father, the choice must be made by the story’s conclusion as to whether she will escape or not. The original draft of the script had Evelyn getting away, but Polanski saw to it that it was revised with Evelyn’s tragic death, which he felt would illuminate the depravity of human behavior, commenting: “When people leave the theatre, they shouldn’t be allowed to think that everything is all right with the world. It isn’t—and very little in life has a nice ending” (Gehring 19).

Although the good girl and the detective do not escape from the struggle in Chinatown alive or physically and psychologically unscathed, the piece as a whole can be seen as an homage to the classic noirs of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Polanski embraces the form and elements of the noir narrative, from the characters to the landscape on which the drama unfolds, yet he does so under his own terms. Chinatown is filled with ambiguity from the very beginning to the final words of the film, and Polanski re-envisions the classic noir genre without taking anything from it. Instead of the viewer watching the omniscient detective navigate through the corrupted culture and landscape, it is instead “the audience who must find a way through the maze of plot and deception in order to arrive at the truth” (Cordaiy 120).

Works Cited

Cordaiy, Hunter "through a lens, darkly: teaching CHINATOWN." Screen Education 54 (2009): 119-124. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.

Gehring, Wes D. "Cinema's Dark Side." USA Today Magazine Nov. 2007: 19. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.

Graydon, Danny. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2007. Print.

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Hausladen, Gary J., and Paul F. Starrs "L.A. Noir." Journal of Cultural Geography 23.1 (2005): 43-69. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.

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Finding an identity in Chinatown. (2018, May 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Finding an identity in Chinatown.” GradesFixer, 06 May 2018,
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