The 1974 film Chinatown captivates audiences of all types. Directed by the infamous Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne, Chinatown is a critically-acclaimed reduxe of the dark and gloomy Film Noir movies, which percolated the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s. Chinatown pays homage to the genre of Film Noir and shows respect to the detective short stories of Raymond Chandler, a British-American novelist and screenwriter. Polanski’s skills as a director and cinematographer show us only what the main character J.J. Gittes sees and knows. Although Polanski displays his stylistic prowess, the film’s authenticity comes from its depressingly unidealistic plot. The story follows ex-cop and private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a man desperately trying to leave his dark past behind him. When a woman hires Gittes to surveil her husband, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Gittes embarks on an investigation, ultimately foreshadowing the unravel of a sinister series of events rooted in corrupt agents and institutions.
While the film’s plot displays the corruption in LA’s Water Department (Ahem… Watergate?) to reflect the potent political corruption at the time, the film’s true relevance comes from its interpretation of corrupt governmental actors. Additionally, Polanski uses Gittes’ dark past to reflect our own xenophobia and societal suspicions, ultimately displaying Chinatown as a manifestation of crookedness and unscrupulousness. Chinatown’s Film Noir motif gives it both a pessimistic and fatalistic tone. These tonal motifs contribute to Polanski’s portrayal of the societal despair and gloomy skepticism that defined the time in which the movie was set (the 30’s) and the time in which the movie was released (1974).
To understand the importance of the film, we must first understand the fear and paranoia which birthed it; consequently, we must recognize the tone of America during this time. Much of this unrest can be linked to the Cold War, and the creeping socialism and mutually assured destruction that it promised. While the Cold War influenced much of late-twentieth century America, it does not take a sleuth as cunning as Gittes to see that the Watergate Scandal and the corruption that ensued produced the bulk of film. “Watergate” was a political scandal that involved a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex.
Nixon and the Committee for Re-Election of the president planned to gain an upper hand on their Democratic rivals by wiretapping and bugging their headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington DC. Nixon sent 5 thugs to complete this task on the night of June 17th, 1972, but the robbers were sloppy. As a result, the complex’s security guard was suspicious, and proceeded to call the police. To distance themselves from the break-in and delay an investigation, Nixon and his aides used omnipotent federal organizations like the FBI, CIA, and IRS to torment those trying to draw a connection between the burglary and Nixon. While Nixon’s initial cover-up was successful, a money trail between the thugs and the Committee for Re-Election of the President was discovered. An investigation mounted by the Senate Watergate Committee further found that Nixon had covertly recorded many private conversations in the White House. Interestingly enough, he was not the first president to spy on his guests. LBJ had installed bugs in the White House before Nixon had occupied it. When Nixon was inaugurated, he had removed the illegal recording devices only to reinstall them later in his presidency. The Supreme Court voted that Nixon must share the contents of these recordings. The tapes revealed Nixon’s use of federal organizations to cover up the break-in. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon chose to resign on August 9th, 1974.
The Watergate Scandal, a conspiracy that at first seemed so loony and unbelievable, eventually cemented itself into reality. For the first time in American history a scandal had been uncovered that went all the way to the top. If the president, an American model of success and wisdom, can be caught red handed as a criminal, then it is not hard to imagine what other mischievous behavior occurred behind the scenes. In both Chinatown and Watergate, the corruption goes all the way to the top. The corrupt agents that orchestrated Watergate simply resigned from their positions; in this scenario, those corrupt agents went unpunished. This is the high-stakes world which skeptics like Roman Polanski and Robert Towne populated. According to Polanski, it isn’t hard to be a pessimist in a world where cheaters prosper, the rich get richer, and the villainous Noah Crosses of the world can silence their challengers and break the laws of nature. When Jack Nicholson’s character, J.J. Gittes, is asked what he did while employed as a cop in LA’s Chinatown, he responds simply: “I did as little as possible.” Then at the end of the film, as horns blare and as we stare at the hole in Mrs. Mulwray’s head, Gittes iconically tells Escobar to “do as little as possible.”
Robert Towne, the story’s writer, was inspired to write the film after an encounter with a Hungarian vice cop who had worked in LA’s Chinatown. When asked “What did you do in Chinatown?” the cop simply responded, “as little as possible.” To Polanski and Towne, this world is a Chinatown. And as Gittes experiences early in his career and at the end of the film, if you try to change Chinatown, you will only hurt those you seek to protect.