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The God-Haunted World of ‘Chinatown’
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The God-Haunted World of ‘Chinatown’

A look back at the neo-noir classic on its 50th anniversary.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in 'Chinatown.'

The English novelist P.D. James once wrote that murder mysteries aren’t about death, but about “the restoration of order,” stealth theodicies sealed by happy endings. We expect an orderly universe. When a mystery breaks the rules, it gets our attention. 

Chinatown, the Roman Polanski-directed classic marking its 50th anniversary, is famous for breaking the rules. It’s a “hinge” film, New Hollywood’s reflection on the Old. And though it’s not usually discussed as a theological film, it should be. Chinatown is in dialogue with Genesis as much as it is The Maltese Falcon. Corruption goes all the way to the top—to God himself. 

Appropriately, Chinatown is a story about origins. Set in 1930s Los Angeles—a time when the California city was scrambling to irrigate the land for its booming population—the film follows Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a private eye investigating the death of the water department’s chief engineer, Hollis Mulwray. During his investigation, Jake falls for Mulwray’s widow, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway). Public and private sins are revealed to be one. Soon, Gittes discovers the original sin of the city’s founding: That paradise in the desert is made possible by thieving land barons stealing water. And the rape of the land echoes a literal rape. 

The true shock of Chinatown, however, isn’t this baroque accumulation of events, but the fact that the guilty get away with it. In a traditional noir, Evelyn would be the femme fatale and the hero’s tragic flaw would lead to his Hays Code-endorsed doom. In Chinatown, it’s the opposite. Jake’s truth-seeking virtues bring about tragedy, and what seemed like a free and open society, with just authorities and honest dreams, is exposed to be a banana republic ruled over by libidinous tyrants. Corruption is bigger than one man, bigger than one city. 

“Forget it, Jake,” his partner tells him. But we can see from Jake’s face that he never will. Nor will we. 

Polanski might well see the world in this pessimistic way. Yet, it’s one of the film’s ironies that he was responsible not just for the absolute bleakness of its ending but the fact that it is nevertheless so tender, yearning, and wistful. Polanski insisted that Gittes’ cynicism be shot through with romantic vulnerability, making him the perfect antihero for this anti-myth. For the tragedy to hit with the appropriate force, Gittes must begin the story as a sentimentalist. 

Screenwriter Robert Towne wrote Gittes for Nicholson—the two were roommates at the time—and incorporated his friend’s vanity and thin-skinned bravado into the character. Nicholson’s beatnik irony dovetails nicely with the hardboiled detective’s sardonic distance. We sense the idealism beneath it. Rather than chasing “the stuff that dreams are made of” like Raymond Chandler’s man of honor, Gittes exposes the dirty laundry of the unhappily married. And yet, like Philip Marlowe, he doesn’t bother to consider that some questions shouldn’t be asked. In the old stories, Marlowe’s faith in truth-seeking was rewarded. In Chinatown, that faith is Gittes’ undoing. 

Perhaps, like his namesake, “Jacob” Gittes expects a ladder to heaven instead of a tower. Evelyn is the opposite, cursed with too much knowledge. She surrounds herself with walls of ice, a chill barrier that at first looks like concealed malice, but which is in fact a facade thrown up by a traumatized daughter. Jake’s tragic flaw is that he has to see; Evelyn, instead, is wilfully blind, a characteristic externalized through a genetic flaw in her vision. When she is finally at her ease, following a tenderly shot love scene with Jake, she is briefly freed from her inability to trust, her lack of good sight. 

Could there be a new birth? Adam and Eve reborn? 

If all of that sounds unusually spiritual for a detective story, it’s not. There’s a mystical quality to Jake’s investigation, despite the dry clarity of its historical setting. (Polanski rejected the producer’s suggestion to add a self-conscious filter, like in The Godfather—a hit released two years earlier and an unapologetically nostalgic history.) In the dusty riverbed, Gittes encounters a boy on a white horse who cryptically speaks of the coming of water. Like a prophet, the boy doesn’t explain who sends the waters—it’s an unknown deity. 

We can deduce, however, that the deity of Chinatown is the industrialist tycoon and antagonist, Noah Cross (John Huston), who chomps his way through sentences with the command and self-satisfied cheer of a human institution. Huston, the director and writer of many classic films, including The African Queen and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, doesn’t need to stretch for such authority—he just exudes it. Echoing the folly of Los Angeles, the self-made city of Old World aspirants, the aristocratic Cross lives in a Spanish-Moderne villa. His name enhances his sense of divine right. Early drafts gave him an even more Christological name: Julian Cross. “The biblical connotations … are abundantly clear, but the actor-director’s biography enriches it,” filmmaker Jeremiah Kipp pointed out. After all, “Huston himself played the voice of God in his own 1966 adaptation of The Bible.” 

And Cross certainly sees himself as a creator. In his final monologue, he goes off on a tangent about tidal pools. His partner, Hollis Mulwray, had been “fascinated” with them. “You know what he used to say?” Cross reminisces. “‘That’s where life begins.’” The irony is that Cross drowned Mulwray in one such pool—an artificial one. On the surface, the tirade is a speech about water rights, but the deeper meaning goes back to the second line of the Bible: “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Even the font of life is a place of death. 

The small-minded Gittes, of course, doesn’t follow, and can only assume there’s a fiscal motive. 

“What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” he inquires. 

Cross booms in reply: “The future!”

Both Jake and Cross, man and god, seem bound to eternal recurrence, devoid of free will. Chinatown nullifies Jake’s agency, but it erases the concept for Cross too. Futility and nihilism don’t merely breed despair, but also licentiousness. “I don’t blame myself,” Cross muses, in a scene added to the Polanski-revised script. “You see, Mr. Gitts”—never bothering to get Jake’s name right—“most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place they’re capable of anything.” 

He breathes out that last word with a lust that is startlingly candid. Why shouldn’t he? There is no power that can call him to account.

Yet despite all this, it might not be quite accurate to describe Chinatown as an anti-myth. Rather, it’s a post-Christian myth, methodically subverting every God-established institution of civilization and nature. In Jewish and Christian cosmology, fatherhood is designed as an image of humanity’s relationship to God, a reconciliation of authority and affection. In a family with an evil father, power and goodness cannot coexist; the only way to succeed is to do—in Jake’s words—“as little as possible.” 

Whereas the god of Genesis pronounces creation good in its inception, reflecting himself, Chinatown reverses this. Every authority is fundamentally compromised or selfish. Women are liars; men are boors; fathers abuse their daughters; the police lack honor; there is no appeal to heaven. Even the act of life-giving is poisoned by power. 

The makers of Chinatown were not unique in their cynicism. In the 1960s and ‘70s, screenwriters were bent on subverting the studio system rules and tropes established by the last generation. But like every rebellious teen, those anti-mythmakers fit into their own tradition. There are as many films portraying the seedy underbelly of Hollywood as there are lauding its glittering promise. From Norman Maine in A Star is Born walking into the ocean to Norma Desmond madly gyrating into the camera in Sunset Boulevard, disillusion and impotence are deep parts of the California myth. While Chinatown distills the trope with such clarity and feeling that it has become the platonic anti-ideal, it doesn’t create a new thing. 

In fact, chucking the Christian myth actually means restoring a far more conservative vision, the “restoration of order”—but an ancient order. In Chinatown, time is cyclical, choice is an illusion, gods are ruled by their appetites, and the world will go on thus forever. It’s not the world of Yahweh, but the world of Zeus. 

And yet, despair is the tribute that unbelief pays to faith. Chinatown wouldn’t be half as sad, or remotely as great—and it is very great—were it not a film that expected a good city and a righteous builder. 

Hannah Long is an Appalachian writer living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Angelus News, The Bulwark, First Things, and Plough Magazine.