The dialogue by Robert Towne has become part of the pop lexicon, “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown!” a catch phrase for being in over your head, or for hurting the one you were trying to help. One of those classic American movies from the 1970s, when studios were churning out themes instead of properties for theme parks, Chinatown can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It’s a first-class detective story about a man killed by drowning in the middle of a Los Angeles drought. On top of that, it’s a disturbing parable about the pressure put on the human heart, with private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) doggedly pursuing the elusive facts about Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her deep-seated reasons for hiding the truth from him. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” intones John Huston as the depraved millionaire Noah Cross, “but believe me, you don’t.”
This heavy material is handled with a light cinematic touch by director Roman Polanski. With no stylistic affectations, no deep shadows or German Expressionistic camera placements, all of the elements of the crime story are instead brought out into the sunlight. Scenes are often filmed at Jake’s eye level, placing the audience at a similar vantage point to his as he untangles the various lies and scandals. Polanski doesn’t shy away from throwing the violence right in our faces, direct and immediate. When Jake gets his nose sliced open by a thug (played by Polanski himself, smirking all the while) the camera doesn’t flinch, and less than a minute later we see a full-on close-up of Nicholson the movie star with his nose crisscrossed by a white bandage.
There’s also an eccentric sensuality that runs through the film, with the characters getting turned on by strangeness. This cuts both ways, since the central discovery about Evelyn is both illicit and amoral. But that’s what gives the film its staying power—not just the shock of discovering those peculiar depths of humankind, but that slight intangible thrill of moving toward it. “There’s something black in the green part of your eye,” says Jake, right before he kisses Evelyn for the first time. She completes their odd seduction by referring to it as a flaw in the iris. While her revelation has become almost a joke in movie culture, with Nicholson slapping the truth out of Dunaway, her performance reaching the heights of hysteria, the moment retains its power in context. It’s forceful because in addition to the sick hunger of the villains, there’s also Jake’s hunger to understand.
All of the scenes involving Jake rifling through newspapers and visiting offices, hat in hand, attending meetings and interviews with clients and cops, ground Chinatown as a straightforward detective story. The exhaustive, labyrinthine narrative is built up like a fortress around this film’s bitter heart. If we place ourselves in his shoes, as a kind of moral crusader, what we end up facing is the emptiness of an all-or-nothing fuck you. It’s the kind of ending Hollywood was able to do at one time without fear, where they could upset the moral compass of the hero in order for the audience to think about their own.