"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

This is an artistic directorial analysis of the 1974 classic Chinatown by Roman Polański. Click here for its trailer.

Film noir was a movement that became popularised during the postwar era. As the name implies (fr. dark, gloomy), most movies associated with this cycle involved crime and mysteries.

The usual narrative for film noir involved gangsters being pursued by cold and flawed male bloodhounds. This classic theme was inspired by many American detective novels and stories which became popular before World War I. Film noirs were created mostly for male audiences, with intrepid male protagonists being allured by sexualised female characters (femme fatale), usually guiding them towards failure and misery. Their major setting was a big, almost abandoned city, usually presented during the night in order to emphasise the atmosphere of corruption and mystery. One of the reasons why film noirs became so popular, was because many were based on  historical events, as stated by Maltby (2003):

  • ‘Film noir (...) has often been examined as a fluctuation in the more persistent genre of a crime movie, and its specific characteristics can be related to the historical circumstances of the period 1945-55.’ (91-92).

True stories, enfolded with a cynic and pessimistic scandals, were a perfect solution for the war-traumatised spectators in search for new morals and values. Nevertheless, one of the most iconic characteristics of film noir (invented during German expressionism) is its low-key lighting (high contrast), usually based on light and shadow play. This technique binds well with noir’s fusion on good and bad characters, not only allowing their directors to create a fitting atmosphere but also draw attention to the character’s emotions and development. Another quality strongly associated with film noir is the use of the skew camera angles and distinctive wide-angle lenses, which gives up an unconventional and disturbing effect, fitting to the theme of intrigues. Emotionally drained characters are usually enclosed in small and crowded rooms, which only enhances the feeling of fatigue and concern.

Film noir was always associated with a very specific, but a repeatable scheme. After almost two decades, while the audience started longing for new solutions and ideas, the colour films were introduced. A movement that became strongly inspired by film noir and gained a lot from the technological progress was neo-noir.

This new style was announced and born by binding forerunner’s conventions with modern ones and updating the styles. According to Conard (2006), many previous dark film values have prevailed: ‘(...) they share the inversion of values, the alienation and pessimism, the violence, and the disorientation of the spectator.’ (2). Neo-noir rejuvenated some of the classic film noir elements, such as visual elements, new themes, and mass media. The movement dropped the classical, contrasting division into good and bad, adding more grey and morally astray characters.

The introduction of colour to the cinema resulted in abandoning the classic black and white theme by neo-noir. Filmmakers enhanced the antagonistic theme by using contrasting colour palette (such as blue and yellow) instead. Crime and mysteries were indulged with many unconventional twists, in order to avoid anticipation and audiences dissatisfaction. Cinematic techniques were still heavily inspired by film noir (low-key lighting, light and shadow contrasts, oblique camera angles), but slight changes have been made to their approach and evaluation, due to technological progress.

Neo-noir reinstated the theme of a dark and corrupted American city that needs to be saved by a film’s protagonist. Filmmakers have given more psychological and moral depth into the main characters. The main flawed and heavy-handed detective inquest for a scandalous case is haunted by the ghosts of his past - tragic background story that usually relapses during the process of investigation.

The femme fatale figure’s function was no longer constricted to only being a vulnerable, sexual interest. She was less defiant and provocative, being the one embroiled with the main intrigue of the film, and always deluding the detective. Neo-noir film’s narrative, based on historical events evoked the mood of tragedy and nostalgia. The movement became very popular, due to spectators nostalgia for remakes and neverending interest in the genre of crime stories.

One of the most crucial representants of the neo-noir movement is a film Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polański. The movie is featuring a story of a private, corrupted detective - Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), being caught up in a series of scandalous affairs and crimes. The film starts with a direct reference to the classic aesthetics of the noir movement. The audience is presented with black and white photos of a couple being in the middle of very passionate intercourse. Later, the camera slowly moves away and shows the main detective in his office becoming engaged in a heated conversation about the scandal. Polański’s film borrows heavily from film noir style and themes, portraying a story of a detective, blindly trying to solve a mystery of a dark, corrupted Los Angeles.

Chinatown sets its base on the traditional conventions of the crime genre, leaving the figure of the heroic, fearless detective, and only vaguely following the schematic structure of a crime narrative. The film was created with usage of old equipment no longer in use, in order to give a tribute to film noir. Polański sends narrative in alternative directions, playing with audiences expectations, and setting up booby trap conventions in the plot. The recurring motif of investigation is given a very interesting approach.

The viewer becomes Jake Gittes’ detective partner and follows him to the crime scene, spying on people, and seeing the same clues. Flawed detective is blinded by love and post-traumatic nostalgia. He has the answer right next to him, but never realises it, and leaves the main mystery for the audience to solve. The whole motif is summarised during one of the most crucial scenes of the film, where character portrayed by the director himself cuts off Jake’s nose for discovering the hidden mystery of the town and sticking his nose into other people’s business. The hand-held camera gives these scenes a very realistic aesthetic, which results in the spectators increasing interest in an investigation.

Chinatown presents an interesting approach towards the figure of femme fatale, which differs from the film noir’s scheme. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is in perfect control of the plot and Jake’s actions. Presented as a deceitful seductress who troubles the audience and characters of the film, hiding her true intentions and mysteries. Evelyn is the one responsible for the plot development, hiring a private detective, meddling with the progress of the investigation, and unrevealing Jake’s troublesome past. Femme fatale figure’s role in Chinatown is not only based on being an object of sexual desire. The camera respects her intellect,  resourcefulness, and treats her as the most knowledgeable character in the film - perverted shots and vulnerability are no longer present.

Roman Polański’s neo-noir film’s setting tributes to the classic noir motif of corrupted city. Los Angeles is presented in Chinatown as a bankrupt, lonely, and mysterious location, becoming a serious threat to the protagonist. Neo-noir film was released when Americans still believed in the power of the idealistic vision of their leaders and society.

The film’s script is heavily influenced by historical events of The Great Depression Era in America when citizens were troubled by drought. The head of the Los Angeles Water Department was concerned about his city’s state of water supply and wanted to solve the problem by accessing one of the rivers owned by farmers. According to Stork (2013): ‘In 1928, the dam’s walls ruptured and billions of gallons of water demolished farms, ranches, bridges, and small-towns in Ventura County. (...) The disaster effectively ended the career of William Mulholland, the father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.’  Numerous scenes were filmed in real-life locations with multiple historical references, which pays tribute to the film noir’s theme. The film captures the historical context at the right time and blends it with the main character’s mental state and tragic past.

Chinatown is not only a place, but it’s also a representation of well-secured knowledge, haunting past, and inevitable tragic consequences Jake Gittes.

The trauma of his past is hidden in every dark alley of the city, interrupting his investigation and keeping him away from the final solution. The recurring motif of water affair sets up a proper troubling and unsettling atmosphere, alarming the main character and the audience about the city’s darkest secrets. Polański presents Los Angeles as a metaphorical setting for a complex crime story with sexual, political and psychological scandals. Chinatown treats it’s setting as a character that represents Jake’s darkest fears and insecurities, constantly haunting his mind and depriving him of what he loves and needs. During the final scene of the film, Jake is confronted with the actions from his past. When the detective witnesses another loved one die, due to his actions, one of his work partners tries to reassure him by saying:

Forget it, Jake.

It’s Chinatown.

These words reflecing how incapable Jake is in forgetting the ghosts of his past. He was always haunted by them if he could forget about it, Evelyn would still be alive.

Introduction of colour into the world of cinema allowed many artists and directors to experiment with previously not present hues and cinematography solutions. Colour scheme in Chinatown borrows slightly from the classic noir style of choosing contrasting tones. Polański combines the historical context of drought and water dam with the opposing hues of yellow and blue. According to Cawelti (1986): ‘Polanski carefully controls his spectrum of hue and tone in order to give it the feel of film noir, but it’s nonetheless colour with occasional moments of rich golden light (...).’ (184). Golden, warm, and earthy colours of the setting represent the problem of drought and general longing for the solution (dry city). During the nights, when Jake Gittes is investigating the case by himself, the colour palette changes to navy-blue, which strongly signals and foreshadows the water affair that the detective discovers, giving an alarming feeling of mystery and unknown. The colour palette has been controlled in the production, in order to achieve a perfect contrast which became a story’s narrative by itself. Costumes worn by detectives are inspired by classic noir style detective outfits. Beige and brown suits with a hat match the limited colour palette of the film. Jake Gittes is presented in grey and black tones which describes his nature and personality as a neutral, grey character.

The controlled colour palette breaks down in the last, deciding scene of the film. The camera follows the detectives leaving behind the crime scene with tormented Jake and slowly moves away, showing an image of Chinatown in full bloom. The vivid neon signs and advertisements are casting a strong, contrasting pink and blue hue on the crowded and shady street. The director leaves the audience and the main character with many questions and disbeliefs, precisely putting together contrasting bright hues with gloomy ones, and ending his film with a recurring motif of mysterious and corrupted city.

Chinatown was released during the perfect, fitting period of Hollywood’s prime. Roman Polański decided to revisit the film noir style, combining the classic themes with a script based on historical events. The director added more depth into his protagonists, presenting them with well-developed background stories and involving them into the progress of the plot. The film borrows heavily from film noir’s contrasting colour palette, in order to tell a suspenseful story foreshadowed by opposing hues. Chinatown overuses classic, dramatic low-key lighting during the night scenes and contrasts the highly bright shots with the always present shadow of dark and mysterious Los Angeles. Both, historical context and colour palette have a major impact on Polański’s neo-noir film. The director carefully follows the classic themes of noir aesthetics, conveying them through a more modern prism of technological progress and character development. Roman Polański confronts the audience with his own approach to the classic noir movement, presenting an iconic neo-noir film where the city and the historical context are the crucial characters.

Found that interesting? Want to find out more? Please check the following sources !

Rick Altman, ‘Rebirth of a Phantom Genre’ in Film/Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), pp. 72-77.

David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, ‘Genre Innovations and Transformations’ in Film History. An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), pp. 229-235.

David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, ‘Narrative Alternatives to Classical Filmmaking’ in Film Art. An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013), pp. 415-429.

John Cawelti, ‘‘Chinatown’ and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films’ in Barry

Keith Grant (ed.) Film Genre Reader (USA: University of Texas Press, 1986), pp. 183-192.

Mark Conard, ‘Introduction’ in The Philosophy of Film Noir (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), pp. 1-4.

Michael Eaton, ‘Chinatown’ in Chinatown (London: British Film Institute, 1997), pp. 7-72.

Phil Hardy, ‘Crime Movies’ in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.) The Oxford History of World Cinema (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 304-312.

Nick Lacey, ‘Film Language’ in Introduction to Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 5-45.

Richard Maltby, ‘Genre’ in Hollywood Cinema (UK, Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 74-111.

Matthias Stork, ‘Chinatown’s Historical Mystery’ in Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform (2013), http://digital.library.ucla.edu/aqueduct/scholarship/chinatown%E2%80%99s-historical-mystery

Accessed: 20.05.2019.

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