Rising to prominence in the late 1940s and initially described as "murder with a psychological twist," film noir helped to introduce audiences to a new genre that could be distinguished by its subject matter, themes, and stylistic trademarks (Spicer 1). Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanksi and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, helped to redefine the genre while maintaining several aspects of classic film noir. While Chinatown was released in 1974, it remains a definitive film of the film noir genre and adheres to the "murder with a psychological twist" trope.
The classification of film noir was first used by French film critic Nino Frank to describe a series of four recently released crime thrillers that included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Laura (1944) (Spicer 2). Crime films, including the gangster film and subsequently film noir, shared a similar "iconography, visual style, narrative strategy, subject matter and characterization" (4). An estimated 20% of films noir that were produced between 1941 and 1948 were direct adaptations of novels written by "hard-boiled" detective writers such as Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. Likewise, within film noir, the realms of good and evil are able to become intrinsically intertwined and often are merged into one another (Borde & Chaumeton 12).
Film noir also exploited the cynicism of the American people by reflecting sentiments such as anxiety, pessimism, and paranoia to depict the unsettling reality that was post-war America (Spicer 20). Film noir was usually set in urban cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago and presented a world that had been corrupted and had become morally ambiguous. Chinatown, set in Los Angeles, embodies these qualities and is reflective not of post-World War II, but rather of the conflict in Vietnam in which the United States was embroiled in until 1975.
Traditionally, film noir uses a criminal investigation for the purpose of introducing characters such as the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, and the corrupt policeman (Borde & Chaumeton 7). J.J. Gittes plays the part of the hard-boiled detective who is hired to perform marital surveillance on Hollis Mulwray and in the process uncovers a much larger underlying conspiracy. Gittes formerly worked as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, working mainly in Chinatown alongside Lt. Lou Escobar (Polanski). Evelyn Mulwray, both the imposter and the real Evelyn Mulwray, who is played by Faye Dunaway, prove to be the femmes fatale in the film, with both women ultimately dying in order to cover-up the ongoing conspiracy. The contradicting natures of the hard-boiled detective and the femme fatale influence how the characters will behave. The contradicting nature of the hard-boiled detective extends to the point where he becomes "an inglorious victim who undergoes…some appalling beatings" (9). The femme fatale's contradicting nature also means that she will not survive or live past her involvement in the scheme or conspiracy that she is a part of and will prove to be "fatal unto herself" (9). The police in Chinatown can also be said to be of dubious character; Lt. Lou Escobar who allows Gittes insight into the ongoing investigation of Mulwray's murder, aides Gittes in his investigation, yet attempts to console him at the end of the film by telling him that there isn't anything he can do to avenge or rectify the murder of Evelyn Mulwray nor can he do anything to apprehend Noah Cross for the multitudinous crimes he has committed. Noah Cross, the film's ultimate villain, is presented as a sociopath who will do anything to hold onto his water empire which he is at risk of losing; Cross goes as far as to fraudulently purchase property, contribute to the murder of his business partner, commit incest and contribute to the death of his daughter, and approach his daughter/granddaughter as a loving individual who will take care of her (Polanski). Furthermore, complicated and intertwining character relationships add to the complexity of the story and explicate character behaviors and motives through story development. These character relationships include the relationship between Mr. Mulwray and Evelyn Mulwray, and the incestuous and devastating relationship that Noah Cross had with his daughter Evelyn Mulwray.
Chinatown may be considered to be an updated version of film noir within the cinematic genre, cementing itself as a neo-noir film within the genre. Neo-noir has been described by Todd Erickson as "a new type of noir film, one which effectively incorporates and projects the narrative and stylistic conventions of its progenitor onto a contemporary canvas" (Spicer 130). Chinatown, unlike many of the popular and successful films noir of the 1940s that were based upon "hard-boiled" novels, is an original imagining of life, controversy, and conspiracy in 1930s Los Angeles. Roman Polanski, the film's director, commented, 'I saw Chinatown not as "retro" piece or conscious imitation of classic movies shot in black and white, but as a film about the thirties through the camera eye of the seventies' (Spicer 139). As Chinatown was shot in color, the uses of chiaroscuro to emphasize the play between good and evil, and light and darkness, becomes nearly impossible to rely upon as a stylistic element and the audience must rely on the characters' moral fiber, and development thereof, to gauge their intent. However, many of the complex narrative structures that are found in classic film noir are also present in Chinatown.
In the film, Jack Nicholson plays J.J. Gittes, a private detective that has been hired to perform marital surveillance on Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. J.J. Gittes is portrayed as being "cool, insolent, glamorous, and successful," (139). It can be argued that Gittes is a "vulnerable and inept investigator, lost and alienated in a world he no longer understands and is therefore powerless to master" (137). However, Gittes does not work alone and often utilizes two assistants that help him to further investigate ongoing cases. While Gittes falsely believes that Evelyn Mulwray, Hollis' wife, has hired him to keep an eye on him, he cannot seem to find any evidence that would suggest that he has been cheating on his wife, but rather observes Mulwray frequenting various Water and Power sites in the region. Gittes finally catches a break, or so he thinks, when he photographs Mulwray with an identified woman whom he believes is his mistress. When the revealing photographs are published, Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray that he has been deceived and by an imposter and subsequently subpoenas him. Gittes is then determined to find out who was behind the initial hiring. Gittes then proceeds to convince Evelyn Mulwray to drop the lawsuit that she had filed against him. It is also during this time that Gittes finds out that a body, which later turns out to be Mulwray, has been discovered at a water reservoir; when Evelyn Mulwray is called into the police station for questioning, she states that she had indeed hired Gittes and subsequently retains his services. As Gittes begins to work for Evelyn Mulwray, he begins to uncover the conspiracy behind Mulwray's death and his interest in visiting Water and Power sites throughout the region. Gittes uncovers that one of the motivating factors behind Mulwray's death was the fight over the water supply and control thereof in the Los Angeles region. In addition to its postmodern approach of representing film noir, Chinatown has been praised for its depiction of the California Water Wars in which Los Angeles and Owens Valley were in dispute over water rights (Los Angeles Aqueduct). The argument over land and water rights, and Gittes' investigation of the alleged dispute, help to uncover the truth behind the founding of the Department of Water and Power by Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross, Evelyn's father. Gittes also uncovers the truth behind Evelyn Mulwray's relationship with her husband, as well as, her relationship with her father.
As Polanksi does not have to adhere to the production codes that were put into place and greatly affected what could be presented in cinematic form at the height of film noir's popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, he is free to explicitly express sexual themes within his film without having to censor himself. The Production Code sought to ensure that films depicted the "correct standards of life" and decreed that "crime must never go unpunished…adultery and illicit sex could not be explicitly treated nor justified, nor could 'lustful embraces' be shown and nudity was expressly forbidden" (Spicer 37). Moreover, the Production Codes forbade that films show detailed and explicit criminal methods (37). The Production Codes' enforceability came to a halt in May 1952 when the Supreme Court ruled that films were "a significant medium for the communication of ideas" and were therefore protected under the First Amendment (39). In Chinatown, Polanksi completely breaks away from the restrictions that were placed upon classic films…