Sunday, April 12, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

There is an old cliché about Asians being inscrutable, meaning not easily “seen,” or understood. This movie uses this idea of mystery as a symbol for discovery of dark deeds below the surface appearance of legitimacy. Things are not what they seem in Chinatown in LA, or in the movie Chinatown. Jack Nicholson's J. J. Gittes is a private eye. He is hired to see things with that eye that are deceptions – primarily cheating spouses. Yet it takes him quite a while to see the deceptions and corruptions of those higher up in the food chain who hire him in this story.

A woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate adultery involving her husband.  He never gets to talk to Mr. Mulwray, who was a big shot in the water department, because he drowns, ironically, during a drought. Los Angeles is in the middle of a desert, and water is highly valued. Mulwray was a good man, a man of vision, who wanted to help the city. His honesty gets him killed. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up, proving that the P.I. was duped. This fact doesn't sit well with Gittes, who confronts Mrs. Mulwray. She now wants to hire him (his second time) to find out what was going on with her husband. This leads to her father, Noah Cross, who then hires Gittes to find the supposed mistress of his son-in-law (we find out later that he sent the fake Mrs. Mulwray).  When Gittes goes to the LA waterway, he is accosted by thugs, one played by director Roman Polanski. The latter cuts his nose as a warning.  Symbolically, it shows that not only is Gittes being deceived by what he sees, but he also loses his scent to follow the right trail.

What he stumbles upon is a scheme to divert water from the San Fernando Valley, buy the land cheaply, and then divert water back to make the land profitable. Gittes is attacked when he visits an orange grove as part of his investigation of this swindle.  (Hollywood has a thing about using oranges as omens of death.  See The Godfather, Identity, and Children of Men for example).  Cross is the big bad man behind this, and his decent son-in-law suffered the consequences of finding out about the deception. Water is life, which is what Mulwray wanted to preserve, to stave off the desert, which metaphorically is the evil represented by Noah Cross (an ironic name – since Noah preserved life during a flood). Here, Cross does the opposite, by aggravating a drought, and killing for profit. The "Cross" name is also ironic – he is quite the opposite of a Christ figure. When Gittes confronts Cross and asks him what else does he need to buy, Cross answers, "The future."  He not only wants to exert power in the here and now, but leave his evil imprint on the temporal hereafter.

That what we see isn't the truth is emphasized in this film by references to eyes and sight.  When Gittes has dinner with Cross, he is served fish with the head on it, the eyes staring up at the P.I., as if to alert him to open his eyes to what is going on. (Cross' taking life out of the water is emphasized by his serving the fish). In an attempt to get county records out of the government office, Gittes fabricates an excuse about not being able to see without his glasses. He says he wants a ruler to follow entries of land sales in a ledger.  He uses the ruler to rip out a page, so he can "see" how the dirty business is being  perpetrated.  Gittes, looking at Mrs. Mulray, says there is a black spot in her green eyes.  She calls it a "flaw," which represents the immorality in her character, and of the mark of evil infesting the world depicted. He realizes that the salt water in Mulwray's lungs came from the pond at Mrs. Mulwray's house. In the water he finds a pair of glasses. He assumes that they belong to Mulwray, but the dead man's wife corrects him, saying they belong to her father. (Cross' glasses, which represent his view of the world, are symbols of him fouling the water, which is equated with life itself). They are bifocals, emphasizing the surface and underbelly realities of life. After we find out about the ultimate secret of incest between Cross and his daughter, the police fire their guns at the escaping Mrs. Mulwray in Chinatown, as she is attempting to save her daughter/sister from Cross. Cross "owns the police" as his daughter says, and they fire their weapons at her, shooting her in the eye. As Cross pulls away his daughter/granddaughter, he covers her eyes. This act shows how the cover up of evil activities continues.

As a cop, Gittes had worked in Chinatown, where things were topsy-turvy and inscrutable. At the end, it is appropriate that Gittes partner tells him to forget about fighting the corruption around him, because "it's Chinatown."

Next week’s film is Sunset Boulevard.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.