Jake Gittes (Nicholson) calmly tells a client at the beginning of Chinatown, “When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.” It is of the utmost importance that throughout the film Jake is almost always wrong. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), like most neo-noir films of the 70’s and 80’s (the forgotten Robert Altman film The Long Goodbye (1973) is its sister-film in all general themes), is constructed in the manner of a traditional detective film — but with a significant twist: this time, the truth does not prevail, good intentions aren’t enough to save a woman in peril, and the detective is borderline incompetent at doing his job.
As an analysis of Chinatown, there are serious spoilers after the break.
Just as in novels such as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Jake uses the available evidence and the light of reason to discover the truth, track down the criminal, and then bring him to justice. These steps — of discovering the truth, locating and stopping the criminal — have become so common as to be cliché. Jake thinks of himself as smart, confident, and just as good a detective as Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade. Yet, he is a half-bright gumshoe that reinvented himself after a devastating experience in L.A.’s Chinatown. He considers himself to be a man who understands the underworld of the city, but his cynicism is insufficient armor against those with true power. Driven by memories of his previous failure, Jake succumbs to sincerity, and acts from his heart to protect Evelyn Mulwray. Jake should know that when he acts to protect a woman in need, she is doomed. Unlike Eco’s William of Baskerville, Jake cannot even stumble upon the truth by mistake.
Chinatown, according to its writer Robert Towne, is a “state of mind,” rather than an actual geographic place. It is the memories associated with an unforeseen tragedy, where “you can’t always tell what’s goin’ on,” for in Chinatown, uncovering the truth is a very rare event, and its discovery, even when it is staring Jake in the face, is no indication that Jake understands what he sees. Jake’s logic — while superficially impeccable under the circumstances, given the available evidence — is always flawed. And what of the central plot, a conspiracy over water? Water both obscures and clarifies. Dams have burst, drowning hundreds; Hollis Mulwray, the man with “water on the brain,” is pulled, swollen from drowning in the aqueduct.
The routine story of a detective uncovering secrets under layers and networks of corruption, conspiracy and deception is complicated by the fact that as he unravels the complicated, disparate facts, he flippantly provides a pat explanation for events. Yes, there is a conspiracy, but he points his finger blindly. At first Water and Power murdered Hollis Mulwray, then it’s Mrs. Mulwray, then it’s Water and Power again, then Mrs. Mulwray again, then finally the truth comes out through another confession: Noah (another allusion to water?) Cross (Christ?) killed Hollis Mulwray.
But back to the film …
The film begins with Curly leaving in a huff, mumbling about paying his fees once his fishing boat comes back holding albacore tuna, the key piece of the puzzle given in the very first minutes of the film. Rarely does the detective in film noir or the detective novel be in the dark for so long about the nature and facts of the crime, even when the evidence may literally be on Jake’s plate (one need only think of Jake eating at the very center of the conspiracy, at the Albacore Club, presented with the freshly killed fish).
Trailing Mulwray, Jake thinks he’ll discover evidence of infidelity; however, most of what he sees relates to the great conspiracy dealing with the ownership of water in California. Mulwray says, “I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.” (Good advice for Jake, but advice unheeded.) More evidence appears: candid photographs of an argument between Mulwray and an unidentified man, Jake’s “operative” mishearing the word “Albacore” for “apple core.” But what of it? The only thing on Jake’s mind as he witnesses the massive conspiracy to defraud California is a case of marital infidelity, not massive conspiracies. Jake photographs Mulwray with his step-daughter, thinking he has caught Mulwray with his mistress, and takes this to be confirmation of a nonexistent affair. His self-confidence gets in the way of the true story.
The first obvious clue is telegraphed at Jake (and therefore the viewer) when he hears how the homeless man died. “The L.A. river?… It’s dry as a bone… he ain’t gonna drown in a damp riverbed, no matter how soused he is.” It’s at this moment that Jake begins to think things are not as they seem. All the previous mentions of the drought and the fight between the farmers, the role of Water and Power, the innocuous paper on his windshield, and the dumped water start to make more sense. What first was thought to be bits of historical background for a period piece (on par with Jake reading the Racing Record with the headline “Seabiscuit Idol of Racing Fans”) has been revealed to be a central theme: “He’s got water on the brain.”
Later, Jake sees Mrs. Mulwray forcibly administer drugs to the upset young blonde, and Jake (naturally) misinterprets the scene. He thinks she is being held against her will. Thinking that Mrs. Mulwray is engaging in criminal activity, he confronts her, only to hear that her husband’s “girlfriend” is actually her sister. Then, thinking the glasses in the pond are her husband’s, he calls the cops and grills Evelyn. She confesses, but to two unexpected conclusions: Noah Cross raped her and fathered her child and she had nothing to do with Hollis’s death (“Those aren’t his glasses. He didn’t wear bifocals”). Jake has seen the owner of the glasses: Polanski, through the language of cinema, tells Jake at the Albacore Club that that (1) Noah Cross is farsighted, (2) Noah Cross has no glasses, (C) Noah Cross has lost his glasses. Again, Jake saw, but he did not understand.
And yet, Jake thinks that confronting Noah Cross is enough to claim victory. This time, a drawn-out confession only confirms the horrible truth. Noah Cross acknowledges his wickedness, his incestuous relationship with his daughter and the murder of Hollis Mulwray in the Mulwray mansion’s pond. While the truth, fleeting as it may be, finally makes sense to Jake, in exchange for the truth Jake has unintentionally led Noah Cross directly to his daughters.
At the film’s climax in Chinatown (for Chinatown-the state of mind is inescapable), Jake has inevitably failed. He is responsible, once more, for the death of a woman he has sworn to protect. And while he has stumbled upon the truth in a haphazard fashion, ultimately, the truth doesn’t matter any more, for evil triumphs in the end. The viewer experiences the same helpless understanding as Jake, for truth cannot defeat lies: good people cannot vanquish evil. Only power matters, and Jake does not have power: Jake is little more than the man that looks through other people’s laundry.
Jake’s — and by association, the audience’s — efforts to separate good from evil, to separate truth from lies, to save the good and punish evil, ultimately fail. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t,” says Cross. And what is Jake? He is little more than a fully fleshed-out man, not a computer. We are Jake, and we should count ourselves lucky when our mistakes lead only to feelings of stupidity or a small loss of money. Now, with the death of Evelyn, the story has come full-circle. Jake cannot escape the fact that twice now, through his stupidity, chutzpah, and well-intended ignorance, he has directly helped kill the woman he loves.