The hard-boiled private eye coolly strolls a few steps ahead of the audience; the slapstick detective gets absolutely everything wrong and then pratfalls first over the finish line anyway. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is neither: a hard-boiled private eye who gets absolutely everything wrong. In Chinatown, regarded as both the first neo-noir and the last “studio picture,” the protagonist—crass and mercurial, though pillow-slipped in creamy linen—snaps tabloid-ready photos of an adulterous love nest that’s no such thing. He espies a distressed young woman through a window and mistakes her for a hostage. He finds a pair of bifocals in a pond and calls them Exhibit A of mariticide, only the glasses don’t belong to the victim, and his wife hasn’t killed anyone. Yet when he confronts ostensible black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) with the spectacular evidence, the cig between his teeth lends his voice an authoritative Bogie hiss, and throughout, Gittes sexes up mediocre snooping with blithe arrogance and sarcastic machismo.
It’s the actor’s default mode, sure, but in 1974 it hadn’t yet calcified into Shtickolson, and in 1974 a director, a screenwriter, and a producer (Robert Evans, who for once deserves a few of the plaudits he’s apportioned himself) could decide to beat a genre senseless and then dump it in the wilds of Greek tragedy. Depravity incarnate Noah Cross (John Huston, director of Chinatown ancestor The Maltese Falcon), father to Evelyn, tells the blind sleuth, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” Ditto Oedipus—also a big jerk, but he didn’t realize he was trapped in a Sophocles play any more than Jake knows he’s cast in the only film Roman Polanski made in Los Angeles after Death Valley ’69.
“I was absolutely adamant that she has to die at the end if the film has to have any meaning,” Polanski later said of the good, vulnerable Evelyn, who directly suffers nearly every time Gittes pulls his Sam Spade act. Scribe Robert Towne never intended to harm her so grievously, but perhaps the matter was settled when Polanski—hardly a filmmaker dispensed toward wish fulfillment—based Evelyn’s scalpeled eyebrows and gift-bow lipstick on memories of his mother, the first woman in his life to be taken from him and butchered.
“LOS ANGELES IS DYING OF THIRST,” screams a flyer while Cross ambles about stealing the city’s water to irrigate his own land, a scheme Towne based on a 1908 scandal. Here the rainiest of movie wings relocates to a drought-stricken outpost stranded between an ocean and a desert. Jake, who favors the phrase “That’s not what it looks like,” cannot see beyond these cracked, sunbaked surfaces (indoors, meanwhile, Polanski floods the set with undiffused light), but Chinatown itself rumbles with subtext. Nicholson was then beginning an affair with Huston’s actual daughter, and a few years later his home served as the scene of Polanski’s enduring crime: sex with a girl younger than Evelyn Mulwray when she bore her father’s child. Nihilist ironies collapse atop each other; preemptive excuses are proffered. “You see, Mr. Gits,” Cross explains, “most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” As is Chinatown: The last gunshot you hear is the sound of the gate slamming on the Paramount lot of Evans’s halcyon reign, and as the camera rears back to catch Jake’s expression, the dolly lists and shivers—an almost imperceptible sob of grief and recognition, but not a tear is shed.