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The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society Essay (Movie Review)


Films have been used over the years to illustrate current and historical events. They act as a reflection of the social, economic, and political happenings in the society. To this end, they play a major role in informing the viewers about the issues surrounding them. At the same time, films can be used to agitate for a reaction from the spectators. They call the attention of the people to issues that affect them either directly or indirectly (Steen 22).

One of the ways through film directors can achieve this objective is to focus on the political issues in the society. The films are used to criticize the socio-political layout prevailing in the community. The layout may be characterized by, among others, corruption and abuse of power during the period within which the movies are produced. The producers may also focus on social, class, gender, family, and racial politics.

According to Kavanagh, ‘Chinatown’ is one of the films that highlight the social and political issues in the American society (8). The most important element in this movie is corruption. It is an American film produced in 1974. The movie is directed by Roman Polanski and produced by Robert Evans. The plot is based on Robert Towne’s screenplay.

It also has Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in starring appearances. The movie was inspired by the water dispute that was ongoing in Southern California at the time. In the film, corrupt officials from the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are intentionally denying services to the public (Chinatown). They are pursuing selfish interests that do not in any way benefit the citizens living in the area.

The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society

How the Movie Criticizes the Social and Political Elements of Corruption

As a term, ‘politics’ is used to refer to the practice of influencing others. It can also be used in reference to the process through which decision making in a particular group affects all members of that entity. The resolutions arrived at tend to affect all the individuals in a similar manner. According to Carter and Dodds, there is a close relationship between politics and power (12). The reason behind this is that the resolutions passed by select individuals in the society tend to affect a large number of people (Carter and Dodds 14).

In the film ‘Chinatown’, Evans presents some elements of social politics affecting the society (Chinatown). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is mandated to serve the city’s population. The government agency is charged with the responsibility of sourcing water and electricity and distributing the commodities to the public.

However, this goal is not met as a result of corrupt dealings among some of the officials, especially those working in the water department. Not all individuals working in the public utility are willing to be part of the conspiracy. Mulwray, the Chief Engineer in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, learns about the plans to defraud land owners in the Northwest Valley. The crime is to be carried out by deliberately denying the citizens water in an attempt to lower property prices in the region. He is murdered before he can make public his findings (Chinatown).

As already indicated, the main social political issue highlighted in the film is corruption. In this case, it is in the form of conspiracy by top government officials to trick the people of Northwest Valley in Los Angeles to sell their land at considerably low prices. The landowners are forced to take this action as a result of the declining value of their properties, which is occasioned by water shortage. What the citizens of Los Angeles are not aware of is that the people they have given the responsibility of providing them with water services are behind their woes (Kavanagh 5).

At the time when the film was produced, there was rampant corruption in the entire US government. Individuals elected and appointed to work in both the state and federal governments were accused of employing a host of unethical strategies to enrich themselves (Sealey 49). As the film ‘Chinatown’ shows, they colluded with persons in the private sector to carry out this plot.

Persons found to be opposed to the plans to defraud members of the public were often subjected to intimidation and public humiliation (Chinatown). In most cases, the individuals who were not willing to abandon their quest to stop the evil were murdered. In this case, the movie critiques corruption as an element of social politics.

How ‘Chinatown’ is placed in the History and Context of World Cinema

A critical analysis of the production reveals that the film ‘Chinatown’ is placed in the history and context of world cinema. The reason behind this is that cinemas have always been seen to produce films that critique the issues that are affecting members of the public at that particular time (McBride and Lindow 37). They are used as a tool to sensitize the society on political, social, or economic factors affecting the individuals (Sealey 49). During the 1970s, corruption was a major vice in the American society (Chinatown).

It is important to note that the vice was not limited to the US. On the contrary, it affected the entire global community (Scott 34). By highlighting this issue, the producer of the movie locates it in the context of the world cinema. At the same time, the film shows the history of the global cinema industry. The reason is that the sector tends to evolve with the rest of the society. Based on the issue addressed in the film and the manner in which it is presented, one can estimate the time around which it was produced (McBride and Lindow 37).

A Scene from the Film that Shows Corruption

There are a number of scenes from the film ‘Chinatown’ that support the argument that the producers are focusing on corruption. For example, the producer illustrates the corrupt state of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in a number of occasions. One such scene is when Gittes, a private investigator, notices that large quantities of water are released from the public reservoir, yet the land in Northwest Valley continues to dry up (Kavanagh 7).

At the same time, he realizes that the ownership of land in the area was quickly changing. It dawns on him that the drying up of the lands in the valley is a conspiracy by municipal officials to lower the prices of properties in the area (Chinatown). Large scale private investors are then able to buy huge pieces of land in the region.

They would develop the newly acquired properties through irrigation using water from the existing reservoir. The attack on Gittes by Mulvihill, the Chief Security Officer at the city’s department of water, is another indication of ongoing corrupt dealings in the organization. The reason for this is that being a public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water should be open to scrutiny by members of the society.

Outside Sources Supporting the Thesis

There are numerous sources that can be used to support the argument that films are used to illustrate social politics surrounding a particular society. They include books, journal articles, websites, and magazines. Authors of most of these resources are of the opinion that films highlight the affairs that are taking place within a particular social setting (Scott 6).

They also seek to sensitize members of the public on how the issues highlighted affect them. One such source is the book by Scott. The review of ‘Chinatown’ by Kavanagh also supports the idea that the film is used to highlight the issue of corruption in the American society.


Films are often used to illustrate the events and issues that are being experienced across the world at a particular time. As such, they can be used to highlight the history and context of the world cinema. Films are also important in highlighting and critiquing social politics. The movie ‘Chinatown’ successfully demonstrates how corruption was one of the major aspects of social politics in the 1970s.

It clearly illustrates how individuals entrusted with power by the people used it for their selfish gains. Government officials used their positions to exploit the citizens. The persons who sought to expose these corrupt dealings were harassed and, in extreme cases, killed by perpetrators of the vice.

Works Cited

Carter, Sean, and Klaus Dodds. “Film and International Politics.” Space, Vision, Power International Politics and Film 5.14 (2014): 1-20. Print.

Chinatown. Ex. Prod. Robert Evans. New York: Paramount Pictures. 1974. DVD.

Kavanagh, James. . 2004. Web.

McBride, Rebecca, and Julie Lindow. Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres, New York: Charta, 2010. Print.

Scott, Ian. American Politics in Hollywood Film. 2nd ed. 2011. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP. Print.

Sealey, Kelvin. Film, Politics & Education: Cinematic Pedagogy across the Disciplines, New York: Peter Lang, 2008. Print.

Steen, Bobbie. The Invisible Cut: How Editors Make Movie Magic, Studio City, CA.: Michael Wiese Productions, 2009. Print.

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"The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society." IvyPanda, 6 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-film-chinatown-and-corruption-in-the-american-society/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society." May 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-film-chinatown-and-corruption-in-the-american-society/.


IvyPanda. "The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society." May 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-film-chinatown-and-corruption-in-the-american-society/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society." May 6, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-film-chinatown-and-corruption-in-the-american-society/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Film ‘Chinatown’ and Corruption in the American Society'. 6 May.

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