The Noirvember Files: Chinatown
Polanski’s oppressively fatalistic neo-noir masterpiece is a film that not only dissects the near-vital importance of water to noir, but also ensures that this relationship is abundantly clear from the very start. For this is a film whose plot not only hinges upon water – the presence and sequestering of it – but also whose details are washed in a grimy haze.
Chinatown begins with J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) receiving a request from one Evelyn Mulwrey (Faye Dunaway) to surveil her husband – identified as the “chief engineer of water and power.” In the second scene, Gittes sits in on a public proposal for a dam to keep water in the L.A. county area. However, Mr. Mulwray testifies against the dam citing that shale beneath dams is known to cause breakage. Throughout the film, water is perpetually surrounding Gittes, sometimes literally, but mostly metaphorically. Newspaper headlines read, “Water Bond Issue Passes Council” and “Department of Water and Power Blows Fuse” and, finally, in its most aggressive form, a flyer is tucked under Gittes’ windshield wipers that reads “Los Angeles is Dying of Thirst!” This last flyer, crucially, is found just after Gittes stakes out Mr. Mulwray at the seashore where, in a gorgeous shot, we see the ocean gleaming all around Mulwray, as though he’s being engulfed by its vastness. Eventually, it is revealed that the city has been diverting water to the valley so that insiders can buy up the land for cheap before it has become irrigated. With the entire ruse finally clarified from its murky mysteries, we come to understand why our protagonist has been named Mr. Gittes – or as Noah Cross (quite an ironic name considering the centrality of water to the plot) perpetually, though ironically, mispronounces “Mr. Gitts”. A git is defined by Dictionary.com as “a foolish or contemptible person.” And, perhaps, Robert Towne – the screenwriter, wishes for us to pay special attention to the first part of this definition.
Yet, water is not only used to propel the narrative forth to reach the climax. It is also used to bring this roaring train to a screeching halt. Roughly midway through the film, the coroner notes to Mr. Gittes that Mr. Mulwray was drowned in saltwater. And, this plot point comes bubbling back up at the end of the film when it is revealed that Mr. Mulwray was drowned in the saltwater pond in his backyard. Particularly interesting is the specificity of saltwater. Though I’ll readily admit that I may be reading too far into this and, instead, the saltwater was merely being used as an identifying and isolating factor, we often talk about saltwater contaminating freshwater sources; like some scourge to be avoided. This seems to be a wonderfully poetic way to communicate the nihilistic themes of government corruption; a corruption which is at the very heart of this picture. Or, in the immortal words of Gittes’ associate, Lawrence Walsh, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Water is, as I noted in the opening, used in many film noirs. But Chinatown uses it with such specificity and with such thematic relevance, that it ceases to be merely a generic trope. Instead, water becomes inextricably linked with the film’s themes. Though Chinatown is very much a love letter to classic noir filmmaking, it is perhaps even more so a distillation of the generic tropes of film noir updated for the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era.