Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne famously got the film’s title, and the key exchange “What did you do in Chinatown?” “As little as possible,” from an LAPD friend of his. The man reportedly said that white cops assigned to LA’s Chinatown district found it difficult to sort through all the languages and dialects they faced there, so they never knew if they were helping or hurting a situation, and they just tried to stay out out of the way. It certainly could be argued because Chinatown protagonist Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, doesn’t play by that rule, everyone suffers. This isn’t a film about heroes making a difference, it’s a classic 1970s post-Watergate paranoid thriller about how institutions are corrupt and untrustworthy, the rot stretches from the top to the bottom, and anyone digging into what’s really going on is going to regret it, both because of the dangerous and possibly lethal consequences, and because nothing they learn is going to improve their lives.
Chinatown is frequently cited on lists of the best films of all time, and especially best screenplays of all time, but it didn’t spring out of nowhere fully formed. It follows a long tradition of Tinseltown mysteries and LA noir films that echo stories by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It just updates them for a 70s era of cocky swagger and nihilistic endings. Jake is an unusual figure for any kind of noir film — per the usual pattern, he’s a private investigator who gets in over his head. But he isn’nt the usual struggling sad sack who’s operating from somewhere near the bottom of the bottle, or fighting to make ends meet near the back half of his glory days. Jake is successful and well-established, with a staff of assistants, no problem getting work, and his name frequently in the papers. He tracks down mysteries with confident, even contemptuous style, bluffing his way into his targets’ offices and ransacking their desks, or begging a business card from a new acquaintance so he can pretend to be them to get past a police cordon just a few hours later.
And other parts of Chinatown don’t fit the familiar mold, either. Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray isn’t the usual femme fatale, half legs, half schemes. She’s a decent person, though the audience doesn’t necessarily know that until it’s too late for her. And the hateful controlling figure who the PI patsy would normally take down — in this case, Hollywood hero John Huston, as water magnate Noah Cross — walks away from the story victorious, with all the cards in his hands. It’s as cynical a film as they come, summed up in the admonition “Forget about it, it’s Chinatown.” Meaning “Even if you know the truth here, it’s futile to try to do anything about it.”
Chinatown came at an odd time for Polanski. It was the first feature he made in America after fleeing the country when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in Los Angeles by members of the Manson family. And it was the last film he made in America before permanently fleeing the country ahead of his sentencing for sexual abuse of a teenager. Certainly there have been any number of film historians over the years who’ve tried to conceptually connect Chinatown’s dark, bitter look at LA with Polanski’s feelings about America — especially since Robert Towne reportedly wanted a much less dark and gruesome end for the movie. But regardless of Polanski’s personal connection with the content, Chinatown does feel of a piece with its era — and particularly with other films about the contrast between Hollywood’s sunny environs and dreammaking business, and the ruthless exploiters who take advantage of both.
What makes Chinatown stand out from so many other films in the same vein is its darkness, but also its tightness. The mystery at its core is complicated, but Towne makes it easy to track how one discovery logically leads to another, and how that old detective-story blend of motives — desire for money, curiosity about the truth, and just a grim stubbornness in the face of threats and bullying — all combine to send Jake down a road he can’t seem to turn off of, no matter what it costs him. In the end, he can’t help any of the victims, and he’s more or less become one himself. He’s maybe wiser about the world and the evil in it, but not about what to do about it. In the end, the film implies, his biggest sin was ignoring that advice to do as little as possible, and stay out of the deep end, where the sharks swim.