The role of a private investigator is to snoop. To get down into the muck and find out the dirty truth. That’s exactly what JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) does in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. It is 1937 in Los Angeles and Jake is a private detective specializing in cases of adultery. When a Mrs. Mulwray hires him to see if her husband, Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), is having an affair, the wheels are slowly set in motion for Jake to uncover a huge conspiracy with the city’s water management, corrupt land use, incest and murder.
Hollis Mulwray is the chief engineer at the city’s water department, and currently in high profile while Los Angeles is experiencing a drought. Jake’s investigation finds Hollis dealing with business and visiting the ocean for hours. The man seems to have water on the brain. Then Hollis is found dead, very odd for a man to die of drowning during a drought. Could it be murder?
Through a tip, Jake learns that water is being dumped somewhere every night. As he investigates, a man warns him to keep his nose out of their business by slicing Jake’s nose. The giant gauze bandage Nicholson sports for the next while is an unforgettable image of the film.
Then there’s the issue of Mrs. Mulwray. It seems that the woman who hired Jake was an impostor and the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) wants Jake to drop the investigation on Hollis. But between the possibility of a murder, something fishy going on with the water and falling in love with Evelyn, Jake is in too deep to go back now. Soon he’s drug Evelyn even further into the mess and realizes she has been keeping some dark secrets.
To me, Chinatown can feel like a cousin to classic film noir. There is a mix of crime, corruption, and Jake first thrown into this by a deceitful woman. Thing is, Jake has the look, but not the archetype personality for noir. For that, he would need to be gruffer, meaner and have more dirt on his hands. For the most part, his conscious is clear, just a Private Eye doing his job. He is simply not hard nosed enough, otherwise it wouldn’t have sliced so easily right? Nicholson is good at going over the top, but he’s relatively calm in this role. He’s just the soft spoken guy who finds himself in the middle of the maze with no control. The one time Jake really turns into a hard-nosed tough guy is when he slaps the truth out of Evelyn, and that just ends in a whole new level of secrecy that he should have never uncovered.
Chinatown is a classic that can be enjoyed time after time. The plot is very smart and thrilling enough that I still find new pieces and clues along the way in my multiple viewings. Between the mysteries being revealed along the way, the suspense and the exciting scenes that make this film a thriller, the only reason people may not enjoy Chinatown is its bummer ending.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”