Chinatown is a film noir starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film is beautifully paced and ingeniously developed. Jake “J.J.” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private eye whose services are usually utilized to prove infidelity (aka sexual surveillance). So when he is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who suspects her husband has been unfaithful, he accepts the job. Evelyn’s husband, Hollis Mulwray, is the acting head of the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles and has found himself under a great deal of public scrutiny because of his opposition to a dam building project (claiming the plans are unsafe). J.J. spends a few days tailing Hollis, and obtains photos of Mr. Mulwray with a young woman named Katherine Cross. Amid the flurry of scandal when the photos hit the front page the following day, the REAL Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) arrives at J.J.’s office and confronts him. Realizing he has been fooled, J.J. must uncover the truth to redeem his reputation and sooth his humiliated ego.
This film noir hits every single point on the NoirWhale.com noir definition, it’s a veritable masterpiece:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The majority of Chinatown takes place in L.A. and the surrounding areas. The audience isn’t taken to Chinatown until the final scene, which is also the climax. Palm trees, hot nights, and long stretches of dusty road frame the plot. The art direction and costuming was flawless.
2) The Anti-Hero
J.J. Gittes is the anti-hero of Chinatown. He’s as prideful as he is insightful, and he mixes evidence like paint on a palette. His dialogue is composed of lies and accusations, and he’s simultaneously abrasive and charming. The role was made for Jack Nicholson, and he seems completely at ease in it. My favorite scene involves one of the most cringe worthy acts of violence in the film, where J.J. is caught by some muscle “poking his nose” where it ought not to be. One of the brutes (Roman Polanski himself) sticks a knife up J.J.’s left nostril and cuts clean through that side with a violent flick of his wrist. He then promises to take his whole nose the next time they catch him snooping. Of course this act of intimidation serves opposite the intended effect, and Mr. Gittes begins to take the whole case personal.
3) The Femme Fatale
Evelyn Mulwray slips easily into the role of femme fatale in Chinatown. Initially she doesn’t seem to fit, but this is simply because of her adeptness at hiding it. She weaves a subtle web of lies that build and build until she gets the hell slapped out of her by J.J. (See Misogyny below). She takes the classic stance of damsel in distress, and acts completely inept in every way while secretly taking care of business behind the scenes. Mrs. Mulwray uses sex to place J.J. in her corner and only tells him what she wants him to hear. She’s a textbook femme fatale.
“Okay, go home. But in case you’re interested your husband was murdered. Somebody’s dumping tons of water out of the city reservoirs when we’re supposedly in the middle of a drought, he found out, and he was killed. There’s a waterlogged drunk in the morgue — involuntary manslaughter if anybody wants to take the trouble which they don’t. It looks like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine with me. But, Mrs. Mulwray –”
(now inches from her)
“– I goddam near lost my nose! And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you’re hiding something.”
Jack Nicholson as Jake “J.J.” Gittes
The women in this film noir are unbelievably helpless. Evelyn spends the majority of her time on screen whining, crying for help, or lying. The most misogynistic scene in the entire film occurs when J.J. is fed up with all the lies and he begins to slap her repeatedly across the face. It was shocking and incredible at the same time. I can’t decide if I hate it for its absurdity or love it, but the fact remains that it is there: immortalized in film. (The slapping begins around 2 minutes and 30 second mark).
J.J. was duped at the beginning of the film, and the entire plot thereafter revolves around redeeming his reputation.
The film opens with photos of a man cheating on his wife with a woman on a secluded picnic. The black and white photos depict the lovers in various positions of sexual congress though no genitalia or breasts are shown. Later in the film, J.J. and Evelyn are shown after the sexual act has been completed. Its an erotically charged scene because all of the nudity is kept at the margins. The audience is titillated by what they cannot see. (FYI Faye Dunaway’s nipples are shown fleetingly, but never highlighted).
7) Loss of Innocence
As the plot proceeds we learn that Katherine Cross (the woman spotted with Hollis Mulwray) is actually Evelyn Mulwray’s daughter…and her sister. Evelyn was raped and impregnated by her father Noah Cross (John Huston).
8 ) Racism
The Chinese receive all the racism from this film noir. One early scene is dominated by a long winded sexual joke told by J.J. about China-men.
Tons of cigarettes are smoked, but the best smoking scene belongs to Evelyn Mulwray. She smokes a cigarette in bed next to J.J., it’s a thing of divinity. A frozen moment of film noir perfection. Here is a gif of that moment:
J.J.’s embarrassment at being taken advantage of coupled with all of the cuckoldry in the film make emasculation a very present theme. J.J.’s livelihood is endangered because he wasn’t sharp enough to check the ID of the woman asking him for help. Thus his drive to redeem his reputation is a similar drive to redeem his manhood. On the other side, for centuries men have feared the emasculation that accompanies being cheated on by their wives. Such an act becomes a blatant attack on the masculinity of the man victimized, and an equal boon to the masculinity of the man perpetrating the deed. Both are thick themes in the film noir Chinatown.
I loved this film. Chinatown rises easily to a position of prominence in my film noir collection.
5 responses to “Film Noir | Chinatown (1974)”
God I love this movie. One of my top favorite.
But I have something to add about Dunaway’s character. Don’t you think there is this play about her having all the appearances of the femme fatale, and as the plot unravels at the end, you suddenly realize that she’s the only selfless character, that all she did was to protect her daughter. Which adds to the tragedy of Evelyn’s life as *spoilers* she’s the one gunned down at the very end *spoilers*. I think she’s the most interesting and touching character in the movie, even if I absolutely adore Jack Nicholson as J.J.
You’re very insightful Joanne! I hadn’t considered that 🙂
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