You may think you know what you’re dealing with – but believe me, you don’t.
Noah Cross to Jake Gittes, Chinatown (1974), Screenplay by Robert Towne, at page 79
Jake Gittes is a world-weary private investigator in drought-stricken, Great Depression-era Los Angeles. A former police officer, he has done well for himself by specializing in sexual indiscretions.
Gittes is a vain and proud man. He doesn’t take kindly to being duped by a deceitful client who hires him under false pretenses to obtain compromising photographs of the city’s chief water resource engineer. When the engineer later turns up dead, Gittes’ desire to get to the bottom of the matter puts him on a collision course with a corrupt and powerful elite orchestrating the future development of the city through manipulation of the water supply. Gittes comes to realize far too late that he is in over his head and that the truth is more disturbing than he imagined.
Chinatown has a complex narrative structure and depth of character that rewards repeated viewings.
The film is shot almost entirely from Gittes’ point of view. Played by Jack Nicholson in his charismatic prime, Gittes is a fun character for us to shadow – his witty irreverance towards all types of authority betrays a likeable moral code.
Faye Dunaway is compelling as the faux femme fatale Evelyn Mulray, and John Huston is pitch perfect as the menacing and lecherous Noah Cross. Cross provides Gittes with an unsettling glimpse into humanity’s capacity for malevolence when he advises, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place they are capable of anything”.
Chinatown also serves as a reminder that individuals under investigation sometimes lie or mislead the police for reasons unrelated to their culpability. An individual’s deepest secrets are not revealed easily.