In interviews, Chinatown's scriptwriter Robert Towne mentions the importance of point of view in the film, while Roman Polanski, in his autobiography, Roman, says "there was never any doubt who would play Gittes." Nicholson was also the lead in another Robert Towne adaptation in 1974, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, and the parts were ostensibly very different but in some ways the same. One film was a peripatetic journey from Carolina to New England, with the mystery chiefly contained within Nicholson's character's self-realizations about being a lifer in the navy, the other a circular story of a private eye in LA enquiring into the sins of another's past whilst folding back on the site of his own failings: the titular part of LA. While Chinatown puts the character and the audience into a constant sense of investigative enquiry; The Last Detail is more a work of existential frustration. When Nicholson gets into fights in The Last Detail, the slight inexplicability of the situations hint at characterisation; In Chinatown it is part of the coordinates of the noir genre. Whether having his nose sliced open, or beating one of thugs up later when he is again attacked, Gittes is someone who is used to the rough and tumble of a private eye world. In the one moment of over-reaction, when Gittes receives a few insults from a fellow customer in a barber's chair, Gittes is happy to take it outside. Yet this over-reaction still seems entirely plausible within the context of his working life, and indeed much more so than when Buddusky picks a fight in the male toilets in The Last Detail.
This is perhaps to say little more than that Nicholson's performance in Ashby's film is modern; Gittes a classical performance albeit offered by a modern actor. Thus where a lot of actors of the thirties and forties were generically singular (Bogart the private eye; Wayne the cowboy; Grant, the Romantic comedian) and many of their performances variations on a central generic persona, the great seventies actors including Nicholson, De Niro, Pacino and Hackman, seemed to be exploring human behaviour with the genre wornby the actor. The first principle resided not in character type, but performative distinction. In his Jack Nicholson biography, David Downing says the actor chose "films and co-workers that would utilise rather than magnify the power of Nicholson's image...they would bring out different facets of Nicholson's cinematic persona..." Though Downing notes some critics were calling Nicholson the new Bogart, that makes sense in relation to Chinatown, but to The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and The Passenger? Chinatownseems a halfway house between Nicholson's constant sense as an actor during this period of exploring life, and the film's desire to work as a neo-noir: a modern noir in colour. Realist moments come in the plaster Gittes wears for a chunk of the film after his nose is sliced open, and the downbeat ending that shows Gittes weak against the corruption surrounding him, but the film is also interested in commenting on the Hollywood tradition, and at the same time being part of it.
Fredric Jameson in an article called 'Postmodernism and Consumer Society', mentions la mode retro - that Chinatown is a great film, but also a pastiche. This is underscored by the fact that Polanski originally hired Stanley Cortez, Orson Welles' cinematographer on The Magnificent Ambersons, and in John A. Alonso's camerawork that offers the sort of aggressive foregrounds and reticent depths that critics like David Bordwell note in Welles' work. There is a compositional bias here quite different from the deep focus camera work in Scorsese's films or Altman's around this time. For example in the scene where Nicholson makes a comment in the background while sitting at the table with his back to Noah Cross (John Huston) who stands in the foreground, Gittes is small in the shot and Cross large, and while the deep focus photography indicates we should be paying attention to Gittes's remarks, it is Cross's change of expression when Gittes mentions his son-in-law that counts. This is classical form serving classical storytelling, yet with a twist.
That twist is of course chiefly the ending Polanski insisted upon. Towne ended the film optimistically with Cross dead, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) alive, and Gittes making good after past failings. Polanski wanted a darker vision, an ending that would show the past returning in a different manifestation. This was consistent with Polanski's own earlier work, with the troubled ending of Repulsion showing Carol in a photo clearly an alienated figure long before her move to London, no matter if her isolation in a London flat when her sister takes a holiday with her lover is what finally makes her go mad. Rosemary's Baby likewise concludes with the devilish realization that a deal has been done with evil forces. Polanski's insistence that Gittes fails to save Mulwray's life is in keeping with Polanski's metaphysically misanthropic vision of the world, but it also coincides with seventies social pessimism. Chinatown is set in the thirties, but its jaundiced social perspective shows that it has a modern sense of despair.
It is despair though that, interestingly, doesn't especially come through the character. Without the traditional noir voice over, Gittes's point of view is also the film's, but of course a very far from all encompassing one. Gittes is wise to everyday cynicism, and sharp enough to make connections between the water supply and money making ventures, but he is still in an every day world of social corruption. Chinatown is one of those noirs (like Blue Velvet) that takes the genre out of the every day and into a new type of evil through its deeper sense of violation. Throughout the film the issue of violation is broached, and most examples stay within the remit of the thriller form. Whether it is the man in the barber's shop accusing Gittes of invading people's privacy, or Gittes forcing his way into houses and old folks' homes, these are violations in keeping with the private eye movie. But what Gittes can't imagine is Cross's violation of his daughter which produces another daughter that he will again, it seems, violate. These are the sins of the father as lover, and also paedophile, and for all Gittes's cynicism he possesses, finally, a naive point of view. He may be wise to events, but not family histories, and so when Cross hires him to find Mr Mulwray's supposed lover, in fact his granddaughter and also his daughter, Gittes can't see that it would be for the opportunity to violate her as Cross had violated his other offspring. Gittes is a cynic in the private eye tradition, but not quite a metaphysical misanthrope. Polanski brings to the genre a heightened sense of 'evil', no matter the darkness of earlier examples, including Fritz Lang's The Big Heat and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, and no matter if much of that evil was already in Towne's script despite the more optimistic ending.
Polanski wasn't only famous for his dark vision, though, and numerous commentators have talked up his technical brilliance, and also his efficiency. One reason why Cortez was removed from the production was that he worked too slowly, and Polanski was in this sense a filmmaker of the old school, ironically more so than the veteran cameraman: "completely out of touch with mainstream developments in the technology of filmmaking, he began asking for equipment that was no longer in use." Polanski was forced to fire him, and went on to bring the film in ahead of schedule: "six days ahead, to be exact." The film's form is effective rather than original, with Polanski utilising the limitations of point of view without entirely keeping us in Gittes's perspective. For example in the scene quoted above, we're privy to Cross's reaction while Nicholson is not. There is even a moment where we're witnesses to Evelyn's reaction after Gittes walks off sure that Evelyn is hiding something. As we see her breathing heavily, hesitant in her expression, we're unlikely to believe any cover up on her part is for the purposes of power. And the key exchange shortly before the end, with Cross fighting Evelyn, would be out of Gittes's earshot, handcuffed as he is a good few yards away from the argument.
Also, while it is clear that Gittes is falling in love with Evelyn, the viewer has the advantage of greater emotional distance. Also, though Towne talks of the film being exclusively from Gittes's point of view, this is true in terms of the scenes but not quite of perspective. The forties film noir The Lady in the Lake experimented far more completely with limited POV, with the entire film seen from the position of Robert Montgomery's private eye. What makes Chinatown distinctive isn't the partiality of perspective, per se, but the possibility of interpretation within this limited point of view that is still greater than Gittes's. Not only emotionally are we at one remove (and can thus see things more coolly than Gittes), but we're also slightly more privileged in the 'interpretive field'.
Thus just as we proposed Polanski takes noir beyond the classical and into the metaphysical, so in form Polanski's use of a loosely Wellesian aesthetic opens up the noir thriller. Perhaps compared to an architecturally distinct work like The Parallax View, Polanski's film is visually much more straightforward, but the film is interested in clues slightly more within our reach than Gittes's. It isn't interested in creating a visual perspective much greater than the character's as in Pakula's film. Like Repulsion andRosemary's Baby, Chinatown is a film about realisations, but where Carol and Rosemary were 'unreliable' central characters, with skewed angles on the world reflected in the numerous wide-angle lens shots the films utilised, Gittes is reliable but limited. His sense of realisation is close to ours, but not quite reliable enough. This isn't the claustrophobia of the earlier films, but a compositional tease offering us information on the edge of the frame or the front or back of the shot: a perception ever so slightly beyond Gittes's.
We've already indicated how we're privy to Cross's reactions when Gittes isn't, and it is possible the viewer will work out that Evelyn had an incestuous relationship with her father before it occurs to Gittes partly because of that moment where we stay with Evelyn after he storms off. However this doesn't indicate weak plotting (where the viewer waits for the character to play catch me up with a story that is too predictable), but part of the character's blindness. Towne invoked Oedipus when talking of the film, and Chinatown's importance rests in its combination of noir tropes with tragic dramaturgy. In a whodunit, if the viewer guesses before the central character, the film falls apart as one waits for the dim narrator to catch up and solve the plot. But Chinatown risks the viewer being ahead of Gittes, and in that anticipation of events lies not the film's predictable dimension but its tragic one. Gittes's flaw is, Towne believes, that of hubris, a belief in his own mastery, where what the film shows finally is his own helplessness. He is a man caught in a cycle, believing that a shift of perspective can lead to a change in circumstances. In the back story Gittes failed as a cop when a woman he believed he could have saved got killed in Chinatown. This time he fails as a private detective.
Now just as we invoked The Last Detail, so we can also invoke The Passenger, the Michelangelo Antonioni film he made shortly after Polanski's movie. In The Passenger, Nicholson's character again changes identities, swapping a career as a television news reporter for a job selling guns as he literally swaps his identity with that of a dead man. Again the attempt proves futile. Yet Antonioni's film doesn't quite possess the tragic dimension though it might be the finer work. Antonioni is interested more in the problem of possessing plausible being in the world; Polanski is more interested in evil, and Chinatown astutely explores the limitations of the private eye when faced with magnitudes beyond his capacity. It is as though Polanski's film possesses a film beyond the film not especially in the Jameson sense of the retro mode, or the allusive complexity of The Passenger, but in the ineradicable, beyond the, if you like, 'radicable'. The latter indicates the ability to solve the crime; the former suggests the permeating evil that cannot be contained by detective intelligence. Gittes's hubris is also his relative humanity: he lacks the dimension necessary for understanding the metaphysically misanthropic, misanthropy greater than man but clearly coursing through him.
If Chinatown impresses itself so strongly upon people's minds, it would seem to do so not especially for its brilliant evocation of a past, in terms of its mise en scne, courtesy of Richard Sylbert, and Alonzo. Nor even due to its serpentine story that incorporates major land issues in and around Los Angeles during the thirties. It resides most especially in the tragic dimension Polanski and Towne generate out of a story that could have been all about the mystery. Instead through the precise use of form and partiality of point of view, Chinatown justifies its place as a piece of classical American cinema, as a work of tangible narrative tension contained by an intangible sense of despair. Gittes might be a crusader for the good, but as Nietzsche noted, "Evil has always had great effects in its favour. And nature is evil. Let us therefore be natural. That is the secret reasoning of those who have mastered the most spectacular effects, and they have all too often been considered great human beings." Noah Cross is, on his own terms, a great man. Polanski is a filmmaker who can understand that in such circumstances a great evil man is likely to defeat a good one.
© Tony McKibbin