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Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
One of the seminal Neo-Noir films, and considered by many to be among the best of Film Noir films in general, Chinatown was written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. It is DARK.
Chinatown tells the story of Jake Gittes, a former cop turned Private Detective living and working in 1930s Los Angeles. Gittes is hired by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the city's water commissioner to prove that her husband is having an affair. It seems like a simple enough job. But it isn't. The woman who hired him isn't the real Mrs. Mulwray. Then the water commissioner ends up dead and the real Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to find out what really happened. He may think he knows what he's dealing with. But he doesn't.
Fun fact: Chinatown is a production of Penthouse Films. (I.E., the pornographic magazine.)
This movie contains examples of:
- Affably Evil: Noah Cross
- And Then What?: Subverted - Jake attempts this with the villain. It doesn't work.
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.
- Arc Words: "As little as possible."
- Bad Cop, Incompetent Cop
- The Bad Guy Wins
- Black and Grey Morality: Almost everyone. Gittes' cynical assumption that everyone has an angle leads directly to the demise of the only character in the film with any pure motives at all.
- Broken Bird: Evelyn Mulwray
- Chekhov's Gun: Evelyn Mulwray dozes off in the car, her head falls and sets of the horn. In the end she tries to escape, a police officer fires at her and then we hear the horn ring...
- 'Bad for glass'.
- Good GOD there are so many in this film! Let's see here, Evelyn has a flaw in her left eye, Jake shoots out the left taillight of her car, the pair of glasses that Jake finds has the left lens broken... and so on and so on. Guess where Evelyn eventually gets shot?
- Chekhov's Gunman: Jake's client in the opening scene.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Faye Dunaway gets so nervous that she lights a cigarette while her previous one is still burning.
- Corrupt Bureaucrat: Yelburton.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Noah Cross
- Creator Breakdown: Roman Polanski's pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson Family. He was also a Holocaust survivor. His bleak, bleak worldview led him to change Robert Towne's Bittersweet Ending into a big ole Downer Ending. Robert Towne ultimately conceded that it made the movie better.
- Creator Cameo: Roman Polanski himself appears in the film as the short hoodlum with the knife who slices Jake's nose.
- Deadpan Snarker: Jake Gittes
- Deliberate Values Dissonance
- Detective Patsy: Jake's getting hired by "Mrs. Mulwray" is what sets the whole plot in motion.
- Downer Ending: One of the nastiest. Perhaps the most famous aspect of this film outside of The Reveal.
- Enforced Method Acting: Jack Nicholson was genuinely nervous during the nose-cutting scene because the knife being used could actually have hurt him badly if not held correctly. In the end, Roman Polanski did the scene himself to get it right.
- Eureka Moment: The salt water pond is what is 'bad for glass.'
- Everybody Smokes: Appropriate for the period. Lampshaded when Jake asks the coroner, Morty, how he's doing, to which Morty complains of a cough - puffing away all the while, blissfully unaware of things like emphysema or lung cancer.
- Evil Sounds Deep: Just listen to John Huston's voice.
- Eye Scream
- Femme Fatale: Just about everyone thinks Evelyn Mulwray is one of these. She is the exact opposite.
- Film Noir: Although it goes out of its way to subvert and lampshade many of the core tropes of the genre.
- Friend on the Force: Escobar is kind of a subversion of this.
- Friendly Local Chinatown: Well, it's local at least.
- Genre Deconstruction: Critics such as John G. Cawelti have argued that the film is all about deconstructing the "myth" of Film Noir and the Hardboiled Detective. Gittes isn't a tough, emotionally detached private eye, but rather a vulnerable, flawed Anti-Hero. Evelyn isn't a Femme Fatale, but everyone assumes she is (in part because of the misogynistic value system underpinning 1930s California). And the villain is so rich, powerful and influential that Gittes is ultimately powerless to stop him or his conspiracy. And so on.
- Guile Hero: While "hero" might be something of a stretch, the fact is that Jake is VERY good at making people slip up so he can wring info out of them, and has so many tricks up his sleeve he'd do Batman proud.
- Hardboiled Detective
- Heroic BSOD: Gittes has one that is epic.
- It Got Worse: SO MUCH WORSE.
- Japanese Ranguage: Actually a plot point.
- Just Between You and Me: "The future, Mr. Gittes. The future!"
- Karma Houdini: By a Complete Monster, no less.
- Meaningful Name: "Hollis Mulwray" is derived from William Mulholland, the name of one of the men involved in the real events which the film fictionalizes (see Very Loosely Based on a True Story) and who also gave his name to a famous road in California. Also, Noah Cross, who is trying to gain control of all the water in Los Angeles (figure it out for yourself).
- Also, the coroner's name is Morty.
- Meta Casting: John Huston, the director of many of the Film Noir classics, in the role of the villain.
- Missing White Woman Syndrome: At the beginning of the film, farmers are campaigning for the construction of a new dam which will allow for better irrigation. Hollis explains that the proposed site for the new dam has a shale base, as did the previous dam in the area, which collapsed and killed five hundred people. In a line of dialogue present in the screenplay but not the film itself, Escobar explains that the reason this collapse and all the deaths it caused didn't get sufficient publicity was because most of the people killed were Mexican immigrants.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Gittes gives Cross the only piece of evidence capable of proving him guilty of murdering Hollis Mulwray. Whoops.
- Not to mention calling the cops on Evelyn under the erroneous belief that she's the culprit.
- Noodle Incident: We never do find out exactly what happened in Chinatown.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: The irritating clerk at the Hall of Records seems to be doing everything he can to be as unhelpful as humanly possible.
- One-Scene Wonder: An interesting use of this trope. Noah Cross has all of two (three at a push), very brief, scenes in this very long film. He's often remembered as one of the most despicable villains in cinematic history.
- And Polanski himself, as the Man with the Knife. "You're a very nosy fella, kittycat. You know what happens to nosy fellas? No? Wanna guess?"
- Parental Incest
- Police Are Useless: Well, in Chinatown they are, anyway.
- Politically-Correct History: Averted. Even our hero wears his prejudices on his sleeve.
- Rape as Drama: Although Cross claims otherwise.
- The Reveal/Wham! Line: She's her sister AND her daughter.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In the face. With a BFG. Repeatedly. "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."
- Shout-Out: The casting of John Huston, the director of many of the great, early noirs including The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, as Noah Cross.
- The scene in which Gittes repeatedly slaps Evelyn to try and get her to fess up recalls a similar scene in The Maltese Falcon.
- Smug Snake: Quite a few, ranging from lowly policemen to high-ranking Corrupt Corporate Executives.
- The Sociopath: Noah Cross.
- Stopped Clock: Jack places a watch under the car of the person he's tailing. That way he can know at what time he left by the time the watch was run over.
- The Un-Reveal: What exactly happened during Jake's time in Chinatown.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The city of Los Angeles really did steal water from valley farmers. Interestingly, this was neither the first nor the last time the events in question were fictionalized, merely the most well-known.
- What Could Have Been: Anjelica Huston, John's real life daughter, as Evelyn Mulwray. Squick.
- It was pretty awkward as it was, given that Jack Nicholson had just started dating Anjelica in real life, making the scenes where John's character asks "Mr. Gittes, do you sleep with my daughter?" just...uncomfortable.
- Chinatown was meant to be one of three Jake Gittes movies. Nicholson never played another detective character, so that Gittes would remain his iconic PI. When the first sequel (The Two Jakes) finally got made, the results were underwhelming, torpedoing the chances of a third movie.
- Many elements of what would have been the third sequel turned up in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, notably the freeway arc.
- Wretched Hive: From the way Jake reminisces about his days there and the events by the film's end, you can tell Chinatown was one of these.
- World Half Empty: And completely dry.
- Would Hit a Girl: Jake slaps Evelyn repeatedly to get the truth out of her. When he comes to call in a favour from a man that hired him to find out if his wife was cheating on him, the wife opens the door sporting a huge black eye. In keeping with the Deliberate Values Dissonance, neither of these instances spark much outrage in-universe.
- Your Mom: Gittes uses the wife variation to insult a cop:
Loach: What happened to your nose, Gittes? Somebody slammed a bedroom window on it?
Jake: Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick, you understand what I mean pal?.