In this section we shall focus on how Chinatown establishes the values of its main character Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), and then explore two of the film's general themes.
In the opening scene Jake Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in matrimonial issues, has handed over to Curly, a working-class male client, a set of photos of his wife having an affair with another man. As Curly gets more and more upset, trying to express his anger, Jake is shown to be laid back. He is in control of the situation: he offers Curly a stiff drink, smokes in his presence, and tells him he need not pay the whole bill.
In scene 2 Jake talks formally and politely to a new client who calls herself 'Mrs Evelyn Mulwray', the wife of Hollis Mulwray, a high-level official in the Water department. (In fact, it is the character Ida Sessions, pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray.) 'Evelyn Mulwray' is the opposite of Jake's previous client: she is a confident, calculating, rich upper-class woman who expresses herself clearly. But despite her difference from Curly, her needs are the same: she suspects her spouse of cheating, and wants him investigated. Jake is able to treat his new client on her own level, and raises the same issues with her, especially money (except that he emphasizes to her the expense an investigation may cost). The main difference between scenes 1 and 2 is that, whereas Jake smokes in scene 1, 'Evelyn Mulwray' smokes in scene 2. Unlike many private investigators in classical films noirs, in this neo-noir detective film Jake is a well-off, upwardly mobile private investigator who feels at ease with all his clients (as well as most of the other people he comes into contact with).
In scene 3 Jake is shown attending a public meeting where Hollis Mulwray is to speak. Jake is depicted as being uninterested in the political issues discussed in the meeting (Los Angeles' precarious position between a desert and the sea, its lack of drinking water, and a proposal to build a dam). During the debate, he is shown reading a sports paper. He only looks up when Hollis Mulwray speaks, and only reacts to the events when a farmer unleashes his sheep into the meeting (and also accuses Mulwray of corruption). This scene establishes Jake's self-imposed isolation from contemporary political debates. He simply wants to do his job and solve his clients' matrimonial problems.
Jake continues to follow and photograph Mulwray in scenes 4—7. In scene 8, in a barber-shop, he gets into an argument with a mortgage broker, who criticizes Jake for the dishonest nature of his job. Jake strenuously defends his job as an honest business, which seems to be the main purpose of this scene, beyond the revelation that Hollis Mulwray's affair has made it into the papers. Jake also describes his job (to the real Mrs Mulwray) as a business in scene 11 when he goes to visit Hollis Mulwray at home. Jake's pride and business have been tarnished, and he wants to find out who set up both him and the Mulwrays (that is, he wants to discover why someone would want to set up Mrs Mulwray by impersonating her, and why this imposter would come to him). His motivation for investigating further is therefore primarily personal.
From the few scenes mentioned, we can already identify the film's main themes. The opening two scenes emphasize the theme of illicit relationships, of spouses having extramarital affairs. By the end of the film we realize that this is one of the film's dominant themes articulated across the whole film, but that it ultimately involves incest between Evelyn Mulwray and her father, Noah Cross, as well as an affair of some kind between Hollis Mulwray and his stepdaughter Catherine. If we ask what Chinatown is 'about', what its 'substance' or 'principal idea' is, one answer is that it is about breaking a fundamental law of society, the incest taboo, a law that creates stable identity boundaries and societies. Familial relationships define identity, and so the film's emphasis on relationships is also an emphasis on the fundamental theme of identity, and the suffering caused by illicit relationships.
This first theme is related to the film's second primary theme: political corruption. This theme is first raised at the end of scene 3, when a farmer accuses Hollis Mulwray of political corruption. Jake ignores this cue, however, and, furthermore, it is a false cue, since Hollis tries to expose the corruption. After Hollis is killed, the corruption theme is put into sharper focus, as Jake proposes to Evelyn that her husband was murdered because he tried to expose corruption. Jake continues the investigation to find out who set him up, and to find out what Evelyn is hiding. At first he suspects her of the murder, but later finds out that her 'secret' is that her daughter was fathered by her father, Noah Cross. Furthermore, Evelyn proposes to Jake that her father may be behind the political corruption (and behind her husband's death). It is only towards the end of the film that Jake is able to link together the first theme, illicit relationships and identity, and the second theme, political corruption, and realize that Noah Cross is behind both. Perhaps, therefore, we can link these two themes, and argue that Chinatown's overall theme is 'patriarchal corruption', of the father's corruption of both family and politics.
Chinatown includes many of the themes common to Polanski's films. The hero is isolated from society by the nature of his job (a private investigator who handles matrimonial cases), although he is far from being a completely alienated investigator as found in classical films noirs. However, Jake is unable to establish any beliefs or values beyond his own work ethic, since he explains that his motivation to investigate Mulwray's death is primarily personal, and he is shown to be uninterested in politics. The contemporary world is shown to be violent, as Jake's life is threatened on several occasions and his nose is badly cut. Furthermore, Cross in particular is depicted as a callous exploiter, indulging in transgressive behaviour; the film's plot does not lead to resolution or a happy ending (Polanski rewrote Robert Towne's original happy ending), but is circular, because the characters are no better off at the end than they were at the beginning - indeed many are worse off, as Evelyn is killed, Jake is injured, may lose his licence, and has lost a woman he loved, and Catherine is handed over to Noah Cross, who seems to escape prosecution. Because of the ending in particular, the film moves from sharp wit to sombre pessimism, as the central character slides from cocky assurance and self-confident cynicism to moral confusion and professional ineptitude.
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