As a classic detective movie, Chinatown involves a hard-boiled setting and a private investigator. The story takes place in Los Angeles, California during the 1930s. The mood of the film is typical of that of a detective story, and the gradual discovery of clues completes the films mysterious atmosphere. Though the detective myth is at first followed, Director Roman Polanski quickly deviates from the typical story line. Instead of gaining more control over the situation through clues and increased knowledge, our detective falls more deeply into the web of helplessness. The wrongdoing in Chinatown is not limited to one person. Instead, an entire society revolves around an individual whose level of evil greatly outweighs any one mans quest for justice.
The one man, in the case of Chinatown, is J. J. Gittes, a typical private eye. His cool and calm attitude matches his suit and clean-shaven face, indicating a businessman who is always in control. As the audience might expect, Gittes was once a member of the police force, and he still has close ties to the law. His independence from law enforcement, however, helps to define what and who he is. On a deeper level, Mr. Gittes is different from other private investigators. Divorce work, something most private eyes avoid, is J. J.s specialty. Gittes treats his job as a job, and he puts aside the sense of honor common to Hollywood private eyes. Also, unlike most traditional detective depictions, J. J. Gittes is not a truly lonely man. As an example, although he has an array of liquors in his office, he only uses them for his clients. As the movie continues, Gittes takes the role of the seeker of true justice rather than the enforcer of institutionalized law.
This shift of roles begins when a thug slices J.J.s Gittess nose. Though the actual cutting scene is very serious and even somewhat frightening, the resulting bandage on Gittess nose acts as a comic relief. In a deeper way, however, the bandage works as a reminder of the challenges Gittes faces. Therefore, though the bandage makes us laugh, it also triggers impulses of pain and shock in our minds. It is an emblem of the evil surrounding Mr. Gittes and how it affects him.
As the movie continues, Gittess surrounding evil increases until it reaches a maximum in Chinatown, the location of the last scene. At the end of the film, the viewer is quickly transported to Chinatown through shots of signs and flashing lights. Next, the camera follows J.J. Gittes and Noah Cross, the source of evil, out of a car and onto the sidewalk. The background noises of an outdoor urban setting create a distortion as Gittes is confronted by a former fellow police officer. At this point, the placement of Gittes and Cross on the screen, compounded by the concurrent arguments of both men, suggests conflict to the viewer. Next, as the lieutenant tells another officer to lock Gittes to the steering wheel of his car for withholding evidence, the camera follows Cross to his daughter, Mrs. Mulwray. What follows is an up-close struggle between Cross and Mrs. Mulwray. It ends with a gunshot to Crosss arm and a wide-screen view of Mrs. Mulwray speeding away in her car. In the end, the viewer sees a dead Mrs. Mulwray and a screaming daughter/sister. Finally, Gittes is taken away from the camera as a crowd of spectators covers the screen.
I agree with Caweltis view of Chinatown. Indeed, the movie is a strong example of how traditional myth crumbles with the presence of a greater evil. The myth of a detective story is one that developed mainly within the earlier years of film. It typically involves a hero, in the form of a detective, on a mission. The hero is balanced on the edge of the law. He uses both his intuition and his encounters with evil to discover the source of wrongdoing. Finally, the hero finds an individual responsible for the wrongdoing, and the criminal is brought to justice. In Chinatown, however, searching for justice leads only to failure, and in the end, our hero is destroyed.