By Chermaine Goh

Chinatown by Roman Polanski(1974) is a neo-noir film about detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who is determined to find out the real culprit behind Hollis I. Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling). As Felicia Feaster said, it ‘is a story of pervasive corruption and sexual malfeasance in Los Angeles which continued Polanski’s essentially cynical approach, established in films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965)’. (Felicia Feaster , Tuner Classic Movies)

There are many things about this film that is different from any typical old film. Chinatown moves along at quite a slow pace from the point of view of Gittes. An important point to note is you can find Gittes in every single scene in the film. More often that not, Polanski opted to for the audience to find out what out was happening or pieces of clues at the very same time that Grittes did. By doing so, Polanski added a layer of suspense to the film, as audience will not know exactly what happened till the very end of the film.

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The music score helped largely to elevate the level of suspense in the film. The score was created under a tight dateline of 10 days; Jerry Goldsmith was only brought on to compose the score as original composer’s (Philip Lambro’s) work was not completely satisfactory. It was a risk that paid off as the ‘result was an instant classic’. (Oliver Lyttelyon, Idiewire). Indeed, the music helped create suspense and surprise when I was not expecting it, which is hard to pull off.

Another reason why this film is different is because it did not have a happy ending. Polanski and scriptwriter Robert Towne argued at great length because Polanski wanted a dark ending, while Towne wanted to have a typical happy ending. It was probably because Polanski was in a dark place of his own during that time. He was, after all, shooting in LA where only 5 years ago his wife was killed by the Manson family, adding another blow to his already tough childhood. It made this film darker then it was originally intended to, and it clearly worked.

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This film was meant to be set in the 1930s although it was filmed in the 1970s, and Polanski managed to retain the feel of the 1930s by filming it with a lot of sepia tones (Planktonrules, IMBD). Coupled with unpredictable shots and camera angles, there is no doubt why it s one of the best films all around.

When one looks at the title Chinatown, they expect that the film is about certain happenings that occurred in Chinatown. However, what Chinatown really represents in this film is the development ‘as a place where the police, i.e., the forces of justice and protection, do as little as possible. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) describes his working for the D.A. there: “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure she was hurt.’ (N.N.H, A sharper focus).

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Chinatown represented more of the essence of LA’s Chinatown, where there is much secrecy and corruption. It is where Mrs Evelyn Mulway’s(Faye Dunaway) secret, her daughter/sister, was kept hidden from the public. It was also where everything went wrong at the end that caused her death.

Polanski trademark style of  ‘the use of a relatively simple, almost geometric theme (like the triangles in his first feature movie), which he then elaborates into almost every detail as the film gets more and more tense and complicated’ (N.H.H, A Sharper Focus) is quite evident is the film. As first everything is seemingly simple, but as the film develops more layers appear and everything becomes complicated. Everything is not what seems in this film, as Polanski likes to play with the viewers mind, and there is the theory that two things is always happening at once. Some examples include:

– The name Gittes, which Cross persists in pronouncing “gits” thereby making it two names at once. (The British meaning of git is “a contemptible person”.) Also – – Gittes is both “Jake” and “J. J.,” itself, of course, double.

– The Japanese gardener’s confusion of “grass” and “glass” which gives Gittes an essential clue.

– Mrs. Mulwray is to Gittes both client and lover, as Cross is both father and mate, benefactor and tyrant.

– The Deputy Commissioner’s double game, the police lieutenant’s, the nursing home manager’s—various “double” roles like:

           -the ex-policeman Mulvahill who works for the Water Department overtly    by day and covertly (culvertly?) by night

           -the banker who critcizes Gittes’s ethics

           -the maid and butler’s dual roles.

– The old folks who, unknowingly, are great landowners.

– The several pairings among the outraged farm family who beat up Gittes, and so on.

– Chinese screwing (having both sex and a cigarette)



There are many memorable moments in this film, and the moment that I considered the most memorable was the scene of Grittes slapping Evelyn continuously to get answers from her. Of which Evelyn answers ‘daugher’, then ‘sister’, then ‘daughter’ and so on.

It is speculated that this film pays homage to the legend of Oedipus. This is due to the twist of Katherine, who is both Evelyn’s sister and daughter. Also, at the end of the film, of all parts to be shot at, Evelyn was shot at the eye.


The themes of this film include crime, mystery, romance and most importantly, water, for it is what the story was based on. After this film was released, it ‘brought more public awareness to the land dealings and disputes over water rights which arose while drawing Los Angeles’ water supply from the Owens Valley in the 1930s.’(Hoover Digest)

It was also the inspiration to many actors to play the part of a detective. For instance, Game of Thrones star Iain Glen said “I’ve always fancied playing a private eye, ever since I saw Jack Nicholson play Jake Gittes in Chinatown” in a February 2013 interview with Scotland’s Daily Record. He plays an Irish private investigator in his new project.

About The Author: Chermaine is a sleep-deprived film and writing student studying in Singapore Polytechnic. When she isn’t working on her never-ending assignments, she will most likely be found catching up on movies and books. She suffers from severe wanderlust.

1.     1. Andrew Pulver. “Chinatown: the best film of all time”. The Guardian. 22 October 2010. Web. 23 June 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/oct/22/best-film-ever-chinatown-season

2.     2. Oliver Lyttelton. “5 Things You Might Not Know About Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ “. Indiewire. 20 June 2012. Web. 23 June 2013. http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/5-things-you-might-not-know-about-roman-polanskis-chinatown-20120620?page=1#blogPostHeaderPanel

3.     3. N.H.H. “Roman Polanski, Chinatown, 1974.” A sharper Focus. Web. 23 June 2013.< http://www.asharperfocus.com/chinatow.htm>

4.     4. Planktonrules. “A very nice, if imperfect, homage to Film Noir”. IMDB. 26 April 2007. Web. 23 June 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/reviews-277

5.    5.  Steve Hendry. “Game of Thrones star Iain Glen ditches his sword and becomes a detective in new TV drama”. 17 February 2013. Web. 23 June 2013. < http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/entertainment/celebrity-interviews/game-thrones-star-iain-glen-1713296>

6.     6. “Chinatown Revisited”. Hoover Digest. April 30 2003. Web. 23 June 2013. http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/7468

7.     7. Felicia Feaster. “Chinatown”. Tuner Classic Movies. Web. 23 June 2013. http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.html?isPreview=&id=154968%7C28063&name=Chinatown

8.     8. Todd Leopold. “’My sister! My daughter!’ and other tales of ‘Chinatown”. CNN. 29 September 2009. Web. 23 June 2013. http://edition.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Movies/09/29/chinatown.towne.movie/index.html

9.    9.  “Chinatown(1974 film)”. Wikipedia. 19 June 2013. Web. 23 June 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown_(1974_film)#Filming


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