Retrospective

The Greatest Neo-Noir of All Time Still Hasn’t Been Topped

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: The movie "Chinatown", directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne...
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As a classic genre in cinema history, film noir showcases the shadowy side of human society better than almost any other.

Generally spanning from the 1940s through the 1950s, classic film noir grew out of the hardboiled detective genre (think James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler), filtered through the deep cynicism of the post-war era. The genre frequently focused on the darkest motives and actions of humanity (greed, corruption, betrayal, murder), with a grizzled, sometimes amoral, investigator (like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep) investigating a case through the seedy underbelly of the big city (frequently Los Angeles). These elements fueled a new era of neo-noir masterpieces like the Coen Bros.’ Blood Simple (1984) or David Lynch’s mindbending Mulholland Drive (2001). But perhaps the greatest neo-noir film to synthesize all these elements is Roman Polanski’s bleak 1974 masterpiece Chinatown.

Set in the 1930s amidst Southern California’s historic water wars, Chinatown follows private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired by an “Evelyn Mulwray” to investigate her husband, L.A. Department of Water and Power chief Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), on suspicion of an affair. He discovers Hollis with a young woman, and the pictures somehow end up on the local paper’s front page. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) arrives and threatens legal action, throwing Gittes into a series of deepening investigations that reveal both overwhelming corruption and shocking depravity among early-LA’s elites. The investigation proves dangerous (to put it mildly) and the real Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to look deeper into the issue, sparking an increasingly harrowing look into the overwhelming corruption and shocking depravity at the city’s core. Fair warning: spoilers follow.

At the core of everything is ruthless business tycoon, criminal overlord, slithering all-around villain, and Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston). He’s working towards a secretive plan to dry up surrounding Valley lands, cheapening it so it can be quickly and suspiciously purchased and then incorporated into L.A. Of course, classic film noir regularly reminds us to distrust wealthy, powerful men, like the ones who murderously hunt the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, and corrupt authorities like Touch of Evil’s corrupt Hank Quinlan. Greed-motivated villainy, political corruption, the seedy underbelly of “the City,” and an inability to trust “the system” for justice pervade the various films of the noir genre, but Chinatown brings these to a fine, devastating point: the very heart of the city is a conspiracy of the rich and powerful against the masses (here embodied by the slimy, smiling Noah Cross). It isn’t incidental or accidental, it’s the system working as intended, and it is total and absolute.

And then it gets worse.

Not only is Noah Cross destroying lives to amplify his wealth and power, but Gittes discovers that Evelyn’s hiding her daughter (and, we discover, sister) Katherine (Belinda Palmer), a child produced when Cross raped his daughter Evelyn when she was 15. As Gittes tries to help Evelyn and Katherine escape Cross, the weight of the villainous magnate’s political and economic power becomes too much to overcome as the film builds towards a tragic conclusion. Suffice to say, Gittes finds it impossible to free the women from Cross’ clutches given his unassailable level of political power. Gittes’ colleague cautions him to let it go in the film’s most memorable line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” There is nothing to do in the face of this villainy, given all the power at play. It just is.

Jack Nicholson as J.J. 'Jake' Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray.

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Even Noah Cross’s most heinous acts, his sexual assault of Evelyn, and his disturbing desire to bring Katherine into his orbit, are treated less as an individual moral failure and more as an effect of his wealth and power. When Cross asks Gittes about Katherine, he says, “I want the only daughter I’ve got left.” Gittes asks him whom he blames for his alienation from Evelyn, and Cross’ response chills: “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” Cross made the most heinous choices a father could make, predation he presumably intends to repeat, and his implied rationalization is that anyone would do the same if they could (and had the power to get away with it).

It’s a masterful, hopeless descent into the overwhelming corruption and shocking depravity among the wealthy and powerful of early Los Angeles. By interrogating the truth of Noah Cross — privilege incarnate — Chinatown hones and modernizes time-honored noir tropes. In the process, the film demonstrates one of the most elegantly blunt statements in cinema history: unchecked excesses of wealth become absolute, untouchable power, producing the most heinous depravities imaginable. More devastating still, Chinatown isn’t an Eisenstein ode to the working class, or a vengeful, bee-themed Jason Statham kick-fest. Here, no one’s coming to save you and nothing is to be done. All you can do is forget it. It’s just Chinatown.

Chinatown is streaming on Paramount+, or ad-supported on Pluto TV.

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