Chinatown, by Albert W. Vogt III

Such is my growing appreciation for old movies thanks to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list that I was initially taken in by its twenty-first entry Chinatown (1974).  By the time of its production, the majority of films had done away with the old school opening credits you see here.  That, and the black-and-white format and mournful jazz music is clearly meant to invoke the film noir style of a bygone era.  The rest of the movie aligns with this style, so we might as well call it what it is: film noir.  However, in this case, while it walks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it is a modernized version of that duck presented in a more risqué fashion. In total, I found it to be rather dull and lacking in the charm of its predecessors.  Read on to find out why.

The hero of Chinatown, if you can call him that, is J. J. “Jake” Gettis (Jack Nicholson).  He is a private investigator.  The majority of his cases involve domestic issues, such as the first client we see him with, Curly (Burt Young), to whom Jake delivers the news of infidelity with graphic evidence.  While Jake later claims that it is simply a living, Curly’s distraught reaction leads him to advise his next potential client to drop the matter and make amends, no matter who is at fault.  Nonetheless, the woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) hires Jake to follow her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), to confirm her suspicions of Mr. Mulwray’s cheating.  Jake reluctantly agrees to follow Hollis in the face of her persistence.  What he finds is a giant political debate over water rights in 1930s Los Angeles . . . and not what I was expecting from the film.  That is okay, though.  There is currently a drought going on, and the city’s already limited supply of water is under constraints.  At a town meeting, Hollis rejects an idea for a new dam, much to the gathered vocal crowd’s dismay.  Afterwards, Jake begins tailing Hollis in earnest, observing the chief of Water and Power look into fresh sources of water being dumped into the sea while there is a shortage.  Jake also sees Hollis meet with a woman he does not recognize, and assumes it is the person with whom Hollis is being unfaithful.  The pictures he snaps of this activity are published in the newspaper, which brings Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to his office.  That clears up one mystery, for you, the reader, anyway.  As yet, Jake is confused, and she threatens to sue him for making false accusations in the press.  Jake’s situation is complicated when, the next day, Hollis’ body is found dead near the city’s reservoir.  In the wake of this, Evelyn shows up again at Jake’s office, this time wanting to drop the lawsuit and get Jake to find out the people responsible.  He is under a little pressure to do so as the police suspect that he is involved in the murder, primarily an old fellow cop of his when he worked in the title area of Los Angeles, Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez).  In the midst of these investigations, Jake receives a phone call from an Ida Sessions, who had originally passed herself off as Mrs. Mulwray.  However, such is her fear of being found by the wrong people that she will not reveal her location.  Jake brings this information to Evelyn, but gets a different clue, namely that of a maiden name of Cross.  A bit more sleuthing at Hollis’ old office turns up a picture of a Noah Cross (John Huston).  When Jake goes to meet Noah, he learns that the old man is Evelyn’s father.  Noah also offers a large sum of money for the return of a girl, though Jake takes this to mean Ida.  The final bit of information to come out of this is that Hollis did not once simply run the water and power department, but rather that they owned it.  This factoid brings Jake to the city’s archives where he finds records of a number of recent land purchases, one of the names being in the obituary that Ida suggested he pursue.  Along with Evelyn, he then goes to a retirement home where this person is supposed to have resided.  The facility exists thanks to the charitable work of one Noah Cross, and all the names on the list that Jake takes from the archives are residents.  In other words, Noah is diverting the water in order to enhance the value of a piece of land he has fraudulently pieced together.  A person who could do this could also commit murder to keep it a secret, no?  Well, if you are thinking that it is Evelyn that is in on it, then know that she is a red herring.  Instead, she is trying to keep her distance from her father because, as Jake finds out shortly after sleeping with her, she has a secret to keep from Noah.  When she was fifteen, Noah had raped her and this tragic act resulted in a daughter, which she had given birth to in Mexico.  She is trying to flee there when Jake gets a call about the Ida’s whereabouts.  When he arrives at the location, he gets there only to find her dead.  Waiting for him is Lieutenant Escobar, who wants to arrest him for, at the very least, withholding evidence.  Jake manages to give Lieutenant Escobar the slip and instead goes to Evelyn.  This is when he is told about the whole daughter-sister situation, and he arranges to help her flee.  Besides, his hunch about her being the murderer is proven false.  It is Noah who is the killer, and he comes to stop her from leaving at their prearranged rendezvous.  Lieutenant Escobar is there, too, but he will not listen to Jake’s version of events.  Meanwhile, Evelyn is shot dead attempting to escape, and Lieutenant Escobar allows a shocked Jake to walk away into the night with the closing scene.

Clearly, Chinatown is not the feel-good film of some of the other’s I have recently been viewing on AFI’s list.  This is probably why I did not enjoy it as much as its predecessors.  With themes of murder, rape, incest, and corruption, you can understand why I would see this one paling in comparison.  Of the aforementioned themes, I will focus on perhaps the most controversial: the pregnancy that resulted from Evelyn’s rape.  She gave birth to a daughter named Katherina (Belinda Palmer).  One of the often-used arguments in favor of abortion is that it should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.  Katherine is the result both of these tragic acts.  With incest, often times the child born from this has numerous health problems that, as the so-called reasoning goes, makes that person’s quality of life doomed from the start.  Katherine displays none of these, but then again, she has no speaking lines, so it is difficult to tell.  I find this phrase “quality of life” an interesting one.  Invariably, such pronouncements are the judgement of a comparably healthy person of how another person is living.  Obviously, the person afflicted with the complications that might come with being born from a situation like Katherine’s is suffering.  As a society, we do everything we can to avoid suffering.  We rarely stop to consider the person going through the pain how they might be able to transcend it, only thinking that the other must do everything to get out of it.  Surely, death would be preferable to fill-in-the-blank ailment?  The problem is that all life, despite how difficult it may appear, has meaning.  No matter its stage of development, well-being, or station in society, it all is precious to God.  I may not have enjoyed this film, but it does have this aspect going for it.

To be fair to Chinatown, it is a murder mystery.  Yet, the older ones of which it is mimicking have none of the over-the-top aspects that you see in this one.  As such, I would say that it is imminently skippable.  Indeed, I am not sure why it is rated so high the list, or on it in the first place.  Please feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments below.


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