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The Film “Chinatown”: Lawlessness Symbol Essay

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Updated: Mar 27th, 2021

In his 1974 film Chinatown, director Roman Polanski uses Chinatown, the name, as well as the location, as a symbol to deliver a specific message to the audience: despite our best efforts and intentions, life is outside of our control. Chinatown, as a rhetorical strategy in Polanski’s hands, symbolizes all of the elements of life that cannot be known, cannot be changed, and cannot be avoided. Hausladen and Starrs offer a succinct account of this phenomenon as it appears in the film:

Chinatown itself is only mentioned four times in the film, and only the concluding events take place there; but its psychological weight hangs over…[the]…entire film until at last the story comes to its dramatic conclusion in Chinatown…Mention of Chinatown alludes to a whole side of Los Angeles society that is unknowable to the official city…someplace that lies outside the law, and irretrievably so. (Hausladen and Starrs 50)

Polanski utilizes the city of Los Angeles, particularly the neighborhood of Chinatown, as the symbolic representation of all that is “…unknowable, terrifying…” and beyond the scope of law and order (Bellman 1).

Hailed by many as a near perfect example of Neo Noir, Chinatown pays homage to the classical period of film noir witnessed in such films as The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly through its “…ambiguous characters, intricate storylines, plot twists meant to surprise the characters, not the audience, and the effective use of darkness and shadow. In the finest noir tradition, key scenes take place at night – the discovery of water diversion and the concluding scene in Chinatown” (Hausladen and Starrs 50). Essentially a bleak and pessimistic picture, Chinatown adheres to the “…moral gray scale of the best film noir: the sense of rot at every level of society…” and personifies the “smoky corruption” inherent to any noir staple (Entertainment Weekly 75).

Polanski’s protagonist, former police officer, now private detective J.J. Gittes, personifies the noir hero: damaged, and guarded. The exact nature of Gittes’ wound, while never directly described or shown, has something to do with his former career as a cop in the Chinatown district. In definitive noir tradition, Gittes balances violence and aggression with emotional distance, impeccably tailored suits, and a hound’s instincts. He also has the requisite amount of machismo.

When taken for a ride by the fake Mrs. Mulwray, Gittes becomes angry enough to launch an investigation into the water scandal. Significantly, Gittes personifies the noir man’s ambiguity. Hardened, cynical, and disinterested in most humans – beyond the contents of their “pocketbooks” – Gittes still believes enough in himself and in the idea of right and wrong that he not only attempts to help Evelyn, but also takes on Cross. Gittes’ actions tell us that despite his experiences in Chinatown, he still believes in a moral absolute. Gittes holds that he can still steer the outcome towards justice. He still believes that life can be controlled.

For a film like Chinatown to work, not only as genre film but also as a social and economical commentary, Gittes must be this type of person. Whether through arrogance, or bullheaded optimism, Gittes still maintains that he can beat Chinatown. The fact that Gittes does not accept that Chinatown cannot be beaten underscores the core conflict of the entire film.

Chinatown the symbol has an inexorable quality. The sense that justice irrevocably fails infuses the film palpably. Polanski’s rhetorical strategy proves effective because it represents a very personal, concrete symbol for the protagonist – a time in his life when he failed. As Bellman points out when Gittes explains to Evelyn, he once “…tried to prevent someone from getting hurt. I ended up making sure she got hurt (Bellman 1).

The climatic scene takes place in Chinatown, and Polanski allows us to see the full effect of his rhetorical strategy on the protagonist. Gittes’ reaction tells us that the symbol of Chinatown has the power to completely negate not only all of his efforts to save Evelyn and Katherine and to send Mulwray’s murderer to justice, but also nullifies all of the history that has passed since his years as a police officer. As critic James Maxfield points out, it’s as though no time has passed at all. Gittes “…passively allows Cross’s henchman not only to disarm him but to take away from him the only physical evidence of the murderer’s presence at the scene of the crime” (Maxfield 1)

Gittes’ demeanor transforms the moment he sets foot in his old haunt. He becomes instantly submissive, allows himself to “…stand by handcuffed to a police man while the burden of defending herself and her sister/daughter is borne almost entirely by Evelyn” (Maxfield 5). Gittes’ voice becomes shrill and his tone begging. He shouts for justice from Lieutenant Escobar, even though he knows he has already lost.

Cross, by contrast, remains measured, cool, calm, and certain, without ever raising his voice. He barely flinches when shot. The desperation evidenced by both Gittes and Evelyn differs sharply from the steadfast surety of Cross. The force of the Chinatown symbol – its ability to nullify any attempt on Gittes’ part to right this outrageous wrong – is total and unmovable. For Maxfield, Gittes solidifies the use of the Chinatown symbol when he “…repeats the phrase “as little as possible,” …proclaiming the futility of all struggle against the forces of destruction” (Maxfield 5).

Polanski’s use of Chinatown as a rhetorical strategy to point to the inherently uncontrollable nature of life begs one question: why? Why use this particular strategy in this particular way? As Maxfield notes, at the center of Chinatown beats a black heart. Polanski’s symbol intimates that “…evil is ineradicable, events are uncontrollable and cannot be foreseen, and life can be snuffed out in an instant” (Maxfield 1). Cross’s relentless cruelty and rapaciousness goes unpunished. In Maxfield’s words, Chinatown, in an “…almost didactic manner teaches these “truths” to its protagonist Jake Gittes–and through him, to the audience. It is significant, though, that Gittes has been taught this lesson before; the film for him constitutes not so much learning as a relearning experience” (Maxfield 1).

Numerous critics have drawn inferences between the shaping the Gittes’ character underwent at the hands of Polanski, and the real life horrors that the director faced, particularly in regards to the catastrophic ending, which Iorio describes as an “…echo of the horrors of the Manson murders” (Iorio 8). In screenwriter Robert Towne’s original script, Evelyn managed to shoot her father and get away with Katherine, but Polanski fought hard for Faye Dunaway’s character to die, in his words, because when “…people leave the theater, 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). Gehring hypothesizes that the L.A. noir genre and Polanski complemented each other perfectly. In his words, “…noir is like Polanski’s own story, through maybe not quite so macabre…” (Gehring 19).

Maxfield, on the other hand, believes Chinatown’s down ending has less to do with Sharon Tate and more to do with a much larger and more brutal period of human history that changed Polanski forever – the Nazi invasion of his home country, Poland:

Certainly, the “sense of outrage” Polanski wanted to create with Evelyn’s death in the film must have reflected…[Polanksi’s]…feelings about his wife’s murder; but Polanski’s autobiography strongly suggests that the character of Evelyn more directly represents another woman in his life…Polanski’s mother was picked up by the Nazis during their occupation of Poland; years later he learned “that she had died in a gas chamber only days after being taken away” (58). It is not surprising that J. J. Gittes appears powerless to rescue Evelyn Mulwray when the director of the film could do nothing to save either mother or wife (Maxfield 6).

In conclusion, the symbol of Chinatown stands for all of the elements of life that film noir detective characters like Gittes rail against: injustice, exploitation, incest, sexual deviance, rapacious development, underhanded business practices, and the people who get away with them.

Some critics speculate that the dark, pessimistic message that Polanski’s rhetorical strategy creates imparts the reality of his own life experience, particularly his family’s demise at the hands of the Nazis during World War Two. This experience perhaps cemented the lawless nature of life deep in Polanski; he learned, firsthand, that sometimes the innocent die, and the bad guys get away with it, and this lesson persists in all of his art. Regardless of whether or not Polanski’s real life underlies its usage, certainly Polanski’s rhetorical strategy employs the Chinatown district of Los Angeles as a symbol of the futile efforts of a man to exact justice from the inherently amoral system that is life.

Works Cited

Bellman, Joel. “Robert (Burton) Towne.” American Screenwriters: Second Series. Ed. Randall Clark. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 44. pp. 1. Web.

Burr, Ty. “Chinatown.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 1998. pp. 75. Web.

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.

Iorio, Paul. “Sleuthing Chinatown.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 178. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 6-9. Web.

Maxfield, James. “‘The Injustice of It All’: Polanski’s Revision of the Private Eye Genre in Chinatown.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 178. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 1-6. Web.

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