Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown, by far one of my newest favorite films, is carefully scrutinized by John Cawelti in his essay "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films." He argues that despite the likeness to film noir, the movie is actually very far from this tradition siting that "Polanski carefully controls his spectrum of hue and tone in order to give it the feel of film noir, but it is nonetheless color with occasional moments of rich golden light" (499). However, by examining and concluding that the film's narrative structure is not in line with film noir, he fails to realize that film noir cannot be examined via its narrative, but rather it must be by its visual style.
Set in 1937 in Los Angeles amidst the water drought, Chinatown tells the story of J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator, who stumbles upon a conspiracy when the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the Water and Power Department's Chief Engineer, asks him to find out if he is cheating on her. After photographing Mulwray in the arms of a young girl and starting a scandal by having the photos published in a newspaper, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up threatening to sue Gittes if he does not drop the falsely acquired case. This plunges Gittes into a "complex web of deceit involving murder, incest, and municipal corruption all related to the city's water supply" (IMDB).
According to Cawelti, Chinatown differs from the classic noir not only in appearance, but on three narrative points central to the "hard-boiled detective" stories that are found in noir films. First, the characters played by Nicholson and Dunaway "echo the archetypal hard-boiled duo in a superficial way" and "play characters which are very different" (501). Dunaway's toughness in the movie, he argues, is merely a facade for her neuroticism and anxiety rather than the actual strength and independence found in Lauren Bacall's character in The Big Sleep. What's more, Nicholson as the hard-boiled detective and "his attempt to be the tough, cynical, and humorous private eye is undercut at all sides" (501). Cawelti even asserts that by virtue of his name, Gittes, the character does not follow the traditional strong detective name, such as Sam Spade, which connotes "hardness and digging beneath the surface" (502).
Secondly, Gittes inability to expose or punish the guilty in the film reveals a "depth of evil and chaos so great that he is unable to control it" (502). This gloomy portrayal is atypical of noir, which sees that the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys punished. Also, he does not save the girl, but rather helps to cause her death and the triumph belongs rather to the power of Chinatown. Lastly, the "erotically potent figure" of the detective's sexuality is undercut when faced with the incestuous and perverse figure of Noah Cross (John Huston), Mrs. Mulwray's father. Cross's "overpowering sexual, political, and economic power" (503) tragically creates a sense of impotence for Gittes.
According to Thomas Schatz in Hollywood Genres, "A genre film, like virtually any story, can be examined in terms of its fundamental narrative components: plot, setting, and character" (646). From this perspective, Cawelti is dead on in his examination. But what Cawelti fails to realize is that he is analyzing film noir as if it were a genre film when in reality it is more of a visual style, as Paul Schrader in his essay "Notes on Film Noir" explains. Film noir, as he specifies, is not a genre and is not defined "by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood." In this regard, Chinatown can mostly definitely be labeled as film noir.
Narrative aside, the film follows many of the stylistic conventions of film noir delineated in Schrader's essay. First and foremost, the scenes in film noir are always lit darkly and when light does come in it is oblique and vertical rather than horizontal, creating a mood of instability and restlessness. For example, in Chinatown, we can see in the scene where Gittes is first talking to the supposed Mrs. Mulwray mirrors a scene from a classic noir film, Double Indemnity. In this photo still of Chinatown we see the rays of light obliquely cut by the Venetian blinds and thus cut across Gittes's face.
The same technique can be seen used in this still from Double Indemnity, just in classical black and white instead of color.
The use of color in Chinatown is the difference between the two stills, the tone is still the same. If Polanski had chosen to do the film in black and white rather than color, the same use of light and shadows could be seen within the film that was typical of noir. The fact that it is in color does not detract from the dark shadows that the characters and the setting have. The "fatalistic hopeless mood" that shadowy lighting creates, according to Schrader, can be seen extensively throughout the film.
Additionally, "a typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action" (Schrader), which is how most of Chinatown is filmed. In the clip below (starting at about 2:56 until about 3:28), the camera begins to move before any action occurs, thereby creating the action via the camera movement.
The use of the close up and the shadow of Gitte's face coupled with the slow panning of the camera create a terrific tension and foreboding mood that is vital in film noir.
Furthermore, the most important noir themes, fear of the future and a sense of haunting from the past, are both present in Chinatown. Gittes is haunted by his past as a cop. Having worked in Chinatown he ended up hurting a woman he so desperately tried to prevent from getting hurt. When Mrs. Mulwray asked what he did in Chinatown, Gittes responds with "As little as possible" because to do anything would have meant people would get hurt. It is this past that keeps haunting Gittes and fueling him to prevent someone he cares about, Mrs. Mulwray, from getting hurt. It is also what creates a mood of hopeless and unease.
The film ends with a hopeless and fearful look into the future. Gittes looks on despairingly at Mrs. Mulwray's dead body and is pulled away by his associates. With a final look and Walsh's, his associate, reminder of "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," Gittes loses all hope. This last line finally solidifies the bleakness of the present and the inability to change the future.
Although this ending in not typical of noir, I think it pushes the tradition forward into a new phase that is even darker than the one before. One in which there is no hope for the future in a present that is so rife with corruption, despair, and inutility. In the end as Walsh says, "It's Chinatown" so there is no point in fighting.
This film is both, I believe, a furtherance of and homage to the noir tradition. Conventions aside, it is beautifully lit and portrayed, as well as directed. And despite its gloomy ending, Chinatown excellently romanticizes the hard-boiled detective narrative. Almost makes you want to visit.