“Chinatown” – the Tale of a Romantic Cynic

Chinatown 1974


Title: “Chinatown”

Release Date: 1974

Director: Roman Polański

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, Roman Polański


It has been hailed as the most perfect noir thriller of all time. The greatness of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, however, lies not only in the masterfully constructed intrigue, which perfectly harmonizes with the visual and musical layers of the film. Above all, the work illustrates the underlying worldview of black cinema – the belief in the absolute power of evil. It is a darkness that not even the masked cynicism of the main character can overcome.

Chinatown – an intricate neo-noir plot

“Chinatown” is a film-legend, an Oscar-winning screenplay, four Golden Globes and three BATFA awards confirm its artistic stature. Shot in 1974, Roman Polanski’s picture is an example of retro cinema that, while reaching back to the noir genre, simultaneously sets the action in the 1930s. The main character of the film is J. J. Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), a private detective living in Los Angeles. One day a mysterious lady shows up at his office, who wants to order the tracking of her possibly faithless husband. Gittes, realizing that this is a public figure – Chief Engineer Hollis I. Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) reluctantly accepts the case. His observation, however, soon brings results in the form of photographs of meetings between a man and a young woman. When the photographs are leaked to the press and a scandal erupts, the real Mrs. Mulwray shows up at Gittes’ office and threatens Jake with a lawsuit for license abuse.

The detective decides to defend himself and at all costs get to the truth about the false principals who wanted to ruin his business. Soon Mulwray is found dead, and in the course of the investigation it turns out that the engineer fell for a scheme to steal city water during the drought that was consuming the city, and therefore someone murdered him. The investigation becomes increasingly dangerous and begins to threaten Gittes’ life. The detective almost dies submerged in a drainage ditch, and then a suspected thug (played by Roman Polanski) seriously wounds him with a knife in the nose. Gittes strikes up an affair with Mulwray’s widow, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), and eventually discovers that there is a secret from the past behind her suspicious behavior. As a teenager, the woman was raped by her influential father, Noah Cross (played by John Huston), resulting in a daughter. Together with her later husband, Mrs. Mulwray concealed the girl’s identity, and the engineer’s alleged extramarital affair was in fact a clandestine meeting with his foster daughter.

Chinatown movie review

Gittes discovers that his father-in-law is behind Mulwray’s murder, intending to take advantage of the drought to buy land for nothing, which he then irrigated with stolen water. However, the detective has no evidence for this, so realizing that all the clues point to Mulwray’s wife’s guilt, he decides to help the woman and her daughter escape. At the last minute, however, his plan is foiled, Evelyn is killed by a stray police bullet, and the demonic Noah Cross takes custody of the girl.

The movie “Chinatown” – a cynic with a romantic blemish

“Chinatown” is a movie in which Polanski particularly interestingly builds a portrait of the main character. It is his character that becomes the medium through which the viewer views the presented reality. Moreover, Gittes acts as a key to the philosophy of the world presented in the film. Well, the man seems to be the embodiment of cynicism in its pure form. Without a shadow of emotion, he is engaged in rummaging through the dirtiest intimate affairs, reaping financial rewards. He seems to have seen it all: he doesn’t believe in human honesty or love. He also takes a cold approach to an erotic relationship with a woman – amorous raptures do not relieve him of his suspicions about Evelyn, and almost immediately after an intimate encounter he is about to take his lover to the police.

In the end, however, it turns out that Gittes’ cynicism is only a pretense. Behind the mask of a tough guy lies a romantic ready to make the highest sacrifices for his beloved. In one of his conversations with Evelyn, the detective reveals that in the past he was a police officer working in Chinatown, a particularly dangerous neighborhood in Los Angeles. At the time he was involved in a dangerous case, he wanted to protect his beloved woman, but unwittingly became the cause of her death. Thus, the hero’s cynicism hides a huge sense of guilt and loss. Furthermore, romanticism is a serious flaw that, as in the past, also in the story with Evelyn prevents the man from making a sober judgment of the case and acting logically. The symbol of this impairment is Gittes’ damaged nose. In the case of the detective profession, the nose is a particularly significant organ – for the sense of smell signifies the ability to unravel a mystery.

Chinatown film analysis

A world replicated in “Chinatown”

Polanski also uses other significant symbols in “Chinatown”. Namely, it is worth noting the role of optical instruments. While they are intended to improve visual acuity, they can falsify reality. Such is the case with the photographs taken by Gittes – the crowning proof of Mulwrey’s infidelity is in fact a mystification – for the man does not embrace his lover in the pictures, but his foster daughter. Another false attribute turns out to be the glasses – they do not belong, as the detective initially believes, to the murder victim, but to the perpetrator, and their broken glasses symbolize the criminal’s warped view of the world. The mirrors, the blemish on Evelyn’s irises – all have a deeper meaning in the film emphasizing human limitations in the pursuit of truth. In learning about the world, we are condemned to the mediation of various tools that often distort reality.

“Chinatown” as a model of the world

In Polanski’s movie, the titular district of Los Angeles – Chinatown – grows into an allegory of the world. It is a reality shown through the filter of the pessimistic worldview characteristic of cinema noir. Here we are dealing with an exceptionally dark vision of the world, in which inexorable fatalism rules. The pessimism of this message was supposed to be alleviated by Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful, hypnotic music, but the film leaves the viewer with a deep sense of discomfort. Gittes’ traumatic story repeats itself years later with frightening accuracy. Although the protagonist believes he is doing everything to save his beloved, in reality he brings about her doom. Romantic faith in the possibility of saving the world is discredited. There is no salvation from evil – we are all caught up in its rules like the rules of a dark Chinatown.


A. Garbicz, Kino, wehikuł magiczny. Przewodnik osiągnięć filmu fabularnego. Podróż piąta 1974 – 1981, Kraków 2009.