Precious Bodily Fluids

Chinatown

In case you didn't think it was a throw-back

In case you didn't know it was a throw-back

The famous line from Chinatown comes when legendary director John Huston, in a sinister role, utters to Jake Gittes (Nicholson), “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” (Aside: nowhere has this been better parodied than in Zoolander: “You think you’re too cool for school, but I’ve got a news flash for you, Walter Cronkite…You aren’t.”) That line is aptly quotable, because it really does summarize a lot of the film. One can watch Chinatown and miss how special it is. You may think it’s just an edgy neo-noir, but believe me, it’s more.

Interesting parallel composition...

Interesting parallel composition...

...with the subsequent shot

...with the subsequent shot

Polanski photographed the film largely in POV shots. The number of over-the-shoulder perspectives we get (almost all over Nicholson’s shoulder) becomes nearly claustrophobic. This sort of effect connects Chinatown with the old detective noirs, such as Hawks’ The Big Sleep or Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. And while those films were ripping off of the likes of Raymond Chandler, Polanski shamelessly attributes his genre and style to film noir, even inserting the great Huston into the cast. That Huston represents an overwhelming and unstoppable evil to Gittes is also revealing, but this point has probably been done to death.

You may think you nose what's going on...

He thinks he nose what he's dealing with...

Puts the "O" in POV

Puts the "O" in POV

There seems to be more to the POV shots, however, than simply signifying our identification with Gittes (we discover parts of the mystery along with him) or a nod to the golden age of American cinema. On a number of occasions, the camera breaks rather violently from Gittes’ point-of-view and shows the viewer things to which Gittes is not (yet) privy. The early scene of Gittes telling a dirty joke while his future client stands listening behind him is an example. These are rare examples, and many of them aren’t particularly significant, but they stand out.

Not your Sam Spade

Not your Sam Spade

I’m not sure how to discuss Gittes’ relationship to Chinatown apart from the obvious, but the connection is still striking and powerful. Chinatown looms over Gittes as a cloud both reminding him of a past storm and promising another. A piece of Gittes’ past, Chinatown becomes an inseparable part of him that will inevitably return to sting him again. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Is it too much to see a connection between Chinatown and the Asian gardener working at the Mulwray residence at the film’s beginning and end? Forming bookends, both scenes prove crucial to discovering the mystery of the murder Gittes is investigating. In the first scene, the gardener complains that the pond in the yard is “bad for glass, bad for glass.” The viewer disregards the man, as does Gittes, who is busy noticing an odd reflection in the pond (which happens to be glass). Before he can reach in, Mrs. Mulwray arrives. He forgets what he has scene until close to the film’s end, when he again encounters the gardener. Re-entering his earlier conversation, Gittes says to the gardener, “Bad for glass, yes,” as the gardener repeats him and says, “Saltwater bad for glass,” while holding a chunk of dead sod. For a film called Chinatown, it’s perhaps odd that only two (apparently) Chinese characters are featured: this gardener and his wife the maid. Gittes investigation is unavoidably tragic, though it could not have been solved without Chinatown. The ending would be more shocking to us were we watching it in 1974, after years of being inundated with classic noir form.

Not the way it should end

Not the way it should end

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This entry was published on July 30, 2008 at 5:35 pm. It’s filed under 1970s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Chinatown

  1. I don’t understand this comment: “And while those films [Hawks’ The Big Sleep or Huston’s The Maltese Falcon] were ripping off of the likes of Raymond Chandler… “?

    Chandler wrote The Big Sleep and Hammett The Maltese Falcon. Huston’s film is faithful to the book, and while Hawks paradoxically darkens the Marlowe, who deliberately triggers an extra death at the end of the movie and adds a full-blown romance that never gets past first base in the book, both films are excellent realisations.

    So what do you mean by “were ripping off”?

  2. Poor choice of words. I was speaking broadly in order to contrast the main sources of adaptation/inspiration (novels versus films). It’s a generalization that deserves a lot more specificity.

    Up until recently, this blog has mostly been here for my own reference. When I use terms like “ripping off,” I usually divorce it from its negative connotations. Now that more people may be reading my stuff, I’ll have to choose my words more carefully. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  6. Hi. Great site, thanks you !
    There’s actually three asian characters in the film: the gardner, the butler and the maid. The gardner is definitly japanese (characteristic “L” for “R’s” pronounciation + actor’s name), while the butler is chinese and so is probably the maid.

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