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Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis Essay

The medium for the Rhetoric in Practice is a film review of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The approach will be scholarly and will appeal to those with undergraduate education and a specific interest in L.A. noir films. Though Chinatown was produced in the 1970s, fans of contemporary L.A noir genre films such as L.A. Confidential and Pulp Fiction will also appreciate this study. The review focuses mainly on how well this film works as a genre staple and builds on the film’s reputation as a modern classic.

This film review is slightly more specialized than those found in publications such as Entertainment Weekly and Variety and is written in a more scholarly style. Thus, it will be more appropriate for specialized film study journals such as American Film, Film Criticism, Film Quarterly, Film Culture, and the Quarterly Review of Film Studies.

The target audience for the Rhetoric in Practice will be film studies majors and filmmakers at the undergraduate level. This audience will have a wide age range however, they will all be educated at a post-secondary level and have an artistic focus that they express through film. Those still in school will range from late teens to mid-twenties. However, older students may also be members of the target audience.

Also, there will be L.A. noir film aficionados who read this type of publication but do not themselves work or study in the industry.

Film studies majors and filmmakers will read this review mostly for the specific references it discusses as they pertain to the L.A. noir genre. Their interest may lie in their desire to know more about this genre so they can replicate it in their own films, or cite it for their own writings.

The rhetorical situation pursued in this practice presents the film Chinatown by Roman Polanski as the archetypal L.A. noir film. The practice represents the message of Chinatown the film as such: the film demonstrates that law and order is not an absolute result of civilized urban society, but a social agreement heavily bound by context and status, and thus, continually subject to change and manipulation.

The practice pays particular attention to several elements of the film: characterization, specific noir elements such as plotting, visual effects, and the treatment of violence. Chinatown the film has been hailed by many critics as a near perfect example of the L.A. noir film genre. Many elements of the classical period of film noir such as The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly are reflected through Chinatown’s characters and characterization, storylines, plot twists, and conscious use of darkness and night scenes for psychological effect.

The main thrust of the practice shows Chinatown’s down ending, which in its day was extremely controversial given that director Roman Polanski fought the screenwriter Robert Towne and insisted that the evil forces – namely Noah Cross – must remain victorious in order for the film to succeed in its genre. The practice argues that this ending not only pertains to the film, but to the entire L.A. noir genre.

Rhetoric in Practice: Film Review

Chinatown is the Archetypal L.A. Noir Film

The film Chinatown encapsulates one of the core thematic messages central to all films of the L.A. noir film genre, namely, the tenuous hold of law of order on society. Viewers live this theme through the film’s protagonist, Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson.

Chinatown successfully demonstrates that law and order is not an absolute result of civilized urban society, but a social agreement heavily bound by context and status, and thus, continually subject to change and manipulation. We discover, through Gittes, that right and wrong bends to the will of money, power, and influence in the world of L.A. film noir.

Chinatown’s director, Roman Polanski, uses the metaphor of Chinatown, the lawless hub of Los Angeles, to support the film’s black agenda. Chinatown is not a feel good film. It is the granddaddy of the L.A. film noir genre precisely because it is so unabashedly negative. The down ending expresses one of the core components of the L.A. Noir genre, and alludes to the classical period of film noir evidenced by such films as Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Sleep.

Unpredictable characters, Byzantine plot twists, story lines that outfox the characters as opposed to the audience, and audio and visual details of unremitting shadow, darkness, and long, pregnant silences all contribute to the film’s thesis that what society deems “right” can easily be stage-managed.

Key scenes, such as Gittes’ discovery of the water diversion scheme, all happen at night, as does the horrific climax that culminates in the death of Evelyn Mulwray and Cross’s acquisition of their daughter Katherine for his nefarious and nauseating sexual exploitation (Hausladen and Starrs 50).

Essentially a bleak and pessimistic picture, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne disagreed vehemently on the ending (Gathering 19). In the original script, Evelyn Mulwray successfully defended her sister/daughter Katherine and killed Cross, creating a feel-good ending that affirmed Towne’s agenda that the innocent victims prevail (Gathering 19).

Polanski’s vision for the film, including the down ending wherein Cross gets away with both the water diversion scam and the girl, prevailed instead. Polanski felt strongly that the film needed to express a negative outcome to properly reflect its genre (Gathering 19). The result is a classic L.A. noir film that reeks of corruption, sin, and omnipotent darkness.

L.A. noir produces a specific psychological experience in its fans through careful characterization. Polanski’s protagonist, private detective J.J. Gittes, is a former police officer who once walked the Chinatown beat. Gittes is the noir hero incarnate: broken, suspicious, yet blessed with the razor-sharp instincts of the most accomplished law enforcer. Gittes’ emotional wound, though never directly explained or visualized on screen, relates somehow to his former career in the Chinatown district.

In definitive noir tradition, Gittes balances beautifully tailored suits and an impeccable sense of personal style with brutal violence and oceans of machismo. Gittes represents the quintessential noir hero, in that he refuses to learn the fundamental lesson that evil cannot be beaten. Viewers identify with Gittes’ stubborn belief that right and wrong are moral absolutes simply because he himself believes it so strongly, and his actions bear out his faith in law and order.

The film Chinatown resembles a testing ground for Gittes, indicative of all noir leading men of his ilk, hard men who feel blighted by life yet still maintain a belief in decency and their own ability to vanquish evil once and for all. When the fake Mrs. Mulwray gets the better of him, Gittes becomes enraged enough to launch his own investigation into the water diversion scandal. Gittes’ actions divulge that despite his experiences in Chinatown, he still holds a moral center, and it still guides his actions.

This paradox in Gittes’ character personifies the noir man’s ambiguity: cynical, and indifferent to most humans beyond the financial incentive they represent, Gittes still believes enough in himself and this moral absolute of right and wrong that he helps Evelyn and Katherine and sets Cross in his crosshairs.

Gittes’ characterization contributes significantly to the success of Chinatown as the benchmark of L.A. noir. Gittes must possess this essential character kink in order for Chinatown to work as a film. He must be the type of man who whether through an inflated sense of self or plain stupidity, he still maintains that he can beat Chinatown. The fact that Gittes does not accept that the inexorable evil that Chinatown represents can never be beaten indemnifies the central conflict of the entire film, and of the genre itself.

The treatment of violence in Chinatown also contributes to the overall success of the film as an archetypal L.A. noir genre picture. Violence in the Gittes’ world is so common and such an ordinary occurrence that it creates a pervasive cynicism that can be felt throughout the film, as well as the genre.

The clearest example of this occurs in the scene with Gittes and the chain-smoking coroner upon the discovery of Mulwray’s body. The violence apparent on Mulwray’s body becomes immediately downplayed not only by the casual slovenliness of the coroner but also from the blackly humorous response to a death by drowning in the middle of a drought.

Chinatown posits a casual treatment of violence, even when the violence is extreme. Viewers in fact only notice the severity of Gittes’ nose wound through the shock and alarm that Evelyn expresses the first time she removes the bandage.

Similarly, when the climax occurs in the Chinatown district, Evelyn’s desperate attempt to flee appears passively witnessed not only by the residents of Chinatown but by Gittes and the police officers also.

After Evelyn is shot, brutally and viciously, right through the eye, the camera lingers almost calmly on her head slumped back against the seat gushing blood. Again, there is such passivity in the residents, in the police officers, and in Gittes’ reaction to Evelyn’s horrific fate, that the viewer becomes almost desensitized to it until Katherine’s screams wake us up.

Chinatown successfully reveals the tenuousness of law and order and shows that right and wrong does not necessarily result from civilized urban society. Law and order and right and wrong are simply social agreements that remain heavily bound by context and status, and these forces have the power to corrupt justice thoroughly. Thus, L.A. film noir genre believes that there is no such thing as absolute justice, although L.A. noir genre protagonists such as Gittes believe in it, and seek it, blind to the futility of their efforts.

Chinatown represents the ultimate L.A. noir film, in that it proves, through the characterization of Gittes specifically, that there is no such thing as morally sacrosanct right and wrong. Instead, money, power, and influence bend right and wrong to their will, in the world of L.A. film noir.

Works Cited

Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Paramount, 1974. Film.

Gehring, Wes D. “Cinema’s Dark Side.” USA Today. USA Today [Magazine]. 2007. pp. 19. Web.

Hausladen, Gary J., and Paul F. Starrs. “L.A. Noir.” Journal of Cultural Geography 23.1 (2005): 43-70. Web.

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"Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis." IvyPanda, 17 Apr. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/chinatown-by-roman-polanski-film-analysis/.

1. IvyPanda. "Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis." April 17, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinatown-by-roman-polanski-film-analysis/.


IvyPanda. "Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis." April 17, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinatown-by-roman-polanski-film-analysis/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis." April 17, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinatown-by-roman-polanski-film-analysis/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Chinatown by Roman Polanski Film Analysis'. 17 April.

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