Chinatown (1974) was written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. Jack Nicholson stars in this detective movie from the 70s that fits the genre perfectly. I don’t remember who recommended I see this film, but I expect it was just one of those titles that comes up in film school. I had it on my Zip list, and this week it just showed up in my inbox, so here I am writing about it.
Essentially, the plot goes about the typical detective storyline where a case starts small, but as it begins to be solved, turns out to be bigger and more corrupt than anybody anticipated from the beginning. What isn’t typical about this film is the way the information is presented. Nothing is the truth the first time around. We are first introduced to a character that goes by the name Mrs. Mulwray, but find out later that she is a fake when we meet the actual Mrs. Mulwray. The whole film is full of these small lies that we as a viewer have to uncover. In that sense, it is a detective movie that encourages an active viewer in participating in the ‘detective work.’
I’m not normally a huge fan of Jack Nicholson, but he was great in this role. One scene stood out for me, where it is revealed that the real Mrs. Mulwray has a sister that is also her daughter. Gittes (Nicholson) is forcefully interrogating her, wanting her to spit out the truth. The dialogue spins in circles with him repeating the question “who is she” and Mulwray answering either “daughter or “sister” but what really moves the scene forward is the action. Jack is repetitively slapping Mulwray trying to get an answer, she is sitting down backing away, then gets up, then moves to the other side of him. The blocking is really where the scene happen, since the dialogue is repetitive, and wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the strong movements and interaction between the characters.
Here is a snippet of dialogue quoted on the IMDB website:
Yelburton: After you’ve worked with a man a certain length of time, you come to know his habits, his values – you come to know him – and either he’s the kind who chases after women or he isn’t.
Jake Gittes: Mulwray isn’t?
Yelburton: He never even kids about it.
Jake Gittes: Well, maybe he takes it very seriously.
I remember this scene because it simply yet effectively establishes 3 characters. First it shows Gittes attitude towards relationships – since his line of work is usually in marital matters. Gittes isn’t given much of a history in the scope of the film, so we have to gather it from moments like these. Second, it shows Yelburton’s strong connection and knowledge of Mr.Mulwray, who remains quite a mystery throughout the whole movie (since he’s dead, but constantly being mentioned). Third, and probably most important though, it reveals the kind of character Mr.Mulwray was, and that the accusations of him cheating is relatively small and insignificant (and false) in the big picture of the film as a whole. Once Gittes (and the audience) accepts this film isn’t about a man having an affair, then it is able to move on to the whole water controversy and corruption in the higher levels.
Like a typical older detective film, the ending is quite conclusive and wraps most everything up (in terms of answers, anyway). We reveal where the problem originated, who the real bad guy was, and our hero walks into the sunset. In this ending in particular, all of this is true, except that the bad guy doesn’t get punished, and the leading lady gets a bullet in the back of her head. So..thats different. But if it ended normally, I don’t think the movie would have nearly the impact that it does this way. It is a risk that was taken, and obviously Polanski knew it would pay off.