Chinatown Is Still the Pinnacle of Neo-Noir Nihilism 50 Years Later

June 19, 2024 - Movies

This week marks 50 years since Paramount Pictures released one of its greatest films, Chinatown. The film hit theaters on June 20, 1974, and garnered a slew of awards on its way to the Oscars, where it would be nominated for 11 Academy Awards. However, with the December release of The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown was arguably shafted and only won a single Oscar (for Best Original Screenplay). That Oscar makes sense; in the ensuing five decades, however, Robert Towne’s script has rightfully been deemed one of the greatest ever written. The last Hollywood film directed by Roman Polanski before his exile as a pedophile, Chinatown has become one of the most discussed and acclaimed films of the 1970s.

Paramount is celebrating Chinatown‘s 50th anniversary with a release of the film on 4K Ultra HD for the first time ever. The exacting restoration was completed using the original camera negative, which was repaired using the latest technology in areas that had been previously damaged. The result is a sparkling 4K Ultra HD presentation that uses more of the best possible source than previous masters, while the release also includes the much-maligned sequel, The Two Jakes, along with a bevy of special features, from a commentary track by Towne and director David Fincher to analysis from people like Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Peirce, and Roger Deakins.

The new release is a great reminder of the film’s brilliance, and how it was emblematic of perhaps the freest moment in Hollywood history; it’s a time capsule in two hours. It’s also one of the most important films in the transition between old and New Hollywood, and one of the great pieces of nihilistic art. It’s a film that reminds us that no, there is nothing we can do to save the world. The rich and powerful will destroy it, and when ‘good’ people try to stop them, they only cause more suffering. Everything is awful, and nothing is understandable, so forget it. It’s Chinatown.

Chinatown, Explained: There Is No Point. Do as Little as Possible.

While set in 1937, Chinatown very much reflects contemporary attitudes towards the Vietnam War, the government, civil rights, Watergate, and other pertinent issues. It finds private eye Jake Gittes (Nicholson) taking on a seemingly normal adultery case, only to find himself the patsy in a much larger scheme to take control of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power and cover up a land buy-up. It’s a complicated plot, the entirety of which isn’t even necessary to appreciate the film; suffice it to say, the labyrinthine details shed light on the reality of California (and Hollywood) at the turn of the century and the political battles over aqueducts and irrigation.

Gittes used to work the Chinatown beat for the LAPD; to survive and stay sane in Chinatown, the cops maintained a simple mantra — “do as little as possible.” But we learn that Gittes became too involved in a case (with a woman, of course; cherchez la femme). The more he tried to help a woman, the more he led to her downfall and death. He quit the force then, and became a private detective; even if he was just solving adultery cases, at least he could actually do something rather than be embroiled in corruption, bureaucracy, and the stagnant enigmas of Chinatown.


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A Flaw in the Iris

Unfortunately for Gittes, that old instinct to solve a case and be the hero creeps up on him when he gets involved with Water(gate) and Power. Gittes becomes intimate with a widow named Evelyn (the immaculate Faye Dunaway), who always seems on the verge of relinquishing a devastating secret. Someone impersonated her in order to get Gittes on the trail of her husband, who turns up dead and is suspected to be involved with a mistress.

Except, it turns out that this ‘mistress’ was actually a woman being hidden by Evelyn. Jake is always one step behind the powers-that-be, and his attempt to protect Evelyn and the young women end in a horror-show of violence and depravity. The virtuous victim is murdered, and the innocent young girl is taken in by an incestuous old predator.

And then it ends, with Evelyn’s eye shot out, and her head pressed into the horn on the steering wheel, the young girl screaming next to her before being taken by a rich criminal, who gets away with everything. Jake stares off in silent disgust, a deeply broken man, and says in a barely audible whisper, “as little as possible.” “Forget it, Jake,” his partner says, escorting him away from the crime scene. “It’s Chinatown,” two words that eulogize man’s sense of purpose in the world and summarize the pointlessness of virtue.


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The Nihilism of Chinatown’s Ending

Film noir has always been a romanticized kind of pessimism, an often morbid response to World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. While the neo-noir movement certainly had its stylization, it tended to be grittier, more brutal, and ultimately less hopeful than its ancestors. If many detectives of the 1940s ultimately found their answers through a torment of betrayal and death, the detectives of the 1970s and 1980s often found no answer at all, or if they did, it completely destroyed them. Chinatown is perhaps the apotheosis of this, with its very title signifying the film’s theme of powerlessness and meaninglessness in the face of a corrupt, awful world.


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Chinatown has a truly bleak ending, and while some extremely respectable efforts have been made to position the film as, in fact, an antidote to nihilism, namely Phillip Novak in “The Chinatown Syndrome” (Criticism, Volume 49, Number 3, Summer 2007), any postmodern (or arguably post-woke) effort to separate the movie from its despair seems just as pointless as Polanski’s view of heroism. As R. Barton Palmer wrote in “Chinatown and the Detective Story” (Literature/Film Quarterly 5, no. 2 1977):

is a reflection of] the deep distrust of the problem-solving abilities of reason and logic which is the legacy of the painful and mysterious failure in Vietnam and our frustrating incapacity to deal with social problems at home […] a distrust which has been further intensified by the pervasive corruption of Watergate, an episode whose evils could be catalogued but whose ultimate causes could scarcely be identified. [Gittes] exemplifies our
doubts about the usefulness of knowledge, the healing powers of goodness, the efficacy of individual effort.”

In his BFI monograph for Chinatown, Michael Eaton writes that the ending “retrospectively imbues the whole film with a protective despair which seems to assert that the protagonist’s project is not only doomed but laughably naïve. Social ills cannot be rectified. Salvation is an illusion. Redemption? Forget it […] Chinatown is not the distorted reflection of the world seen through a broken glass darkly, it is the very image of the world.”

John Belton echoed this in the essay “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown” (MLN No. 106, 1991) by writing, “Chinatown’s downbeat conclusion has its roots in the nihilistic resolutions of 1940s films noirs.” And yet, at the same time, Chinatown is awash in sunshine, as if to say, ‘The corruption’s gone global. The evil no longer belongs in the chiaroscuro of black and white movies; the worst of humanity is now wide open in broad daylight, and you can’t do anything about it.” Belton adds:

It does not conclude with the triumph of the heroic detective and the forces of reason […] It ends instead with a sense of bewilderment, alienation, and despair; with an assertion that individual action is either unable to effect change or counter-productive.


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John Huston and The Maltese Falcon

At this point, we’ll get into spoilers. The nihilism of Chinatown is explicated and contained in one microcosmic scene, the most famous scene of the film — the sister/daughter scene. Gittes thinks he has everything figured out, assuming that Evelyn is a black widow murderess who is torturing her dead husband’s mistress. In his mind, he had it all figured out. Like the smart, tough hero, he calls the police in front of her and notifies them of her whereabouts. He sits down and explains the crime.

Of course, he’s wrong, something he refuses to believe. She tearfully defends herself as he interrogates her. He only budges from his presupposition after beating the hell out of Evelyn, at which point she reveals that the young girl she is hiding is not her dead husband’s mistress — it’s her sister and her daughter, birthed when Evelyn was 15 after being raped by her father, the rich water magnate. We see the realization wash over Gittes’ face as Evelyn buries her face in shame and tears. He’s never looked so stupid, so ignorant, so awful. He’ll snap into action and try to save Evelyn and her sister/daughter, but his actions will only lead to death and destruction.

The scene masterfully deconstructs an almost exactly similar one in what’s often considered the greatest classic film noir of all time, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. Near the end of that film, Sam Spade and the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, are alone in a room; they, too, are lovers. But Sam picks up the phone nonetheless and calls the police, giving them his and Brigid’s location. He then explains her crimes to her, towering over her, and, of course, gets everything right. She tearfully protests, and he shouts, “This isn’t the time for that schoolgirl act!” The brilliant private detective has it all figured out, and he sacrifices the woman he loves for justice. “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck,” he says.

Thus, Chinatown takes a seminal text from the book of noir and filters it through the lens of neo-noir pessimism. The hero’s no longer a hero; the femme fatale isn’t so simple, but rather a completely damaged victim; the plot isn’t solved. To top it all off, Chinatown casts the great director of The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, as the ultimate villain of the film. He’s only in a few scenes, but he’s one of the most vile, nefarious characters ever put on screen. Huston is unforgettable. You can see 30 decades of wisdom, contempt, and sadness on his face since the days he directed The Maltese Falcon (his very first film). The world had become a very different place in that time. There were no longer any victories.


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Chinatown, Polanski, and a Very Different Hollywood

The fact that Huston was cast in Chinatown has further significance than just deconstructing film noir with an even darker twist. Huston helped make up the cartilage that connected the bones of old, classic Hollywood with the rip-roaring New Hollywood Movement that began in 1968 and 1969 and ended around 1980. The aged director made several masterpieces during this period (including Fat City and Wise Blood), outliving the majority of filmmakers from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Chinatown was a product of a very different Hollywood than Huston began in. Legendary producer Robert Evans made the rare move of being Chinatown‘s main producer while simultaneously leading Paramount Pictures itself. He was one of several producers during the 1970s who stepped back and encouraged the auteur system, leaving filmmakers and artists to their own devices without much studio interference. This was the New Hollywood of Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Hopper, Ashby, Rafelson, and Roman Polanski, who cast a dark shadow on New Hollywood.


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Polanski’s previous Hollywood film was 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, one of the subversive successes which kickstarted the New Hollywood movement. But when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in Los Angeles by Charles Manson’s gang of hippy wackos in 1969, Polanski returned to Europe in a depression. He created one of the most upsetting and violent adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a 1971 film that seemed to signal his shift toward nihilism. Macbeth made less than half what it cost, and Polanski’s next film (the experimental disaster, What?) made even less. Jack Nicholson let Polanski know about Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, and since Polanski had made Rosemary’s Baby a hit for Paramount, he was quickly hired.

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Polanski spent six to eight weeks rewriting Towne’s massive script with him, and the two fought through every day and page of the process, but ultimately created one of the greatest film scripts ever written. Polanski, Evans, Nicholson, and others were very emblematic of the 1970s and the New Hollywood Movement — they would often fight and argue, use a lot of drugs and alcohol, sleep around, but ultimately get the job done. Tragically and disgustingly, along the way, Polanski became a manifestation of the very worst of Hollywood, drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl and later being accused of raping multiple other underage girls. He pleaded guilty but fled the country, and has lived in France for the past 50 years.

As such, the production of Chinatown (with all its specific stories, as well — Polanski pulling the hair out of Dunaway’s head; Polanski and Nicholson having a screaming match in their underwear on set; etc.) feels wholly representative of New Hollywood. Brilliance and darkness, intertwined. Genuine, Harvey Weinstein-style awfulness, obfuscated by genius. A bunch of lunatic artists at the top of their game, with no babysitter, creating and destroying in equal measure. Hollywood will never be like this again, for much better, and for worse.


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The 50th Anniversary Release of Chinatown Is Glorious

Chinatown was a huge hit when it was released, remaining number one at the box office for six weeks (then dropping for six weeks with the release of Death Wish, and then unfathomably becoming number one again for four more weeks). It was nominated for 11 Oscars, and made five times its budget.

Over the years, though, the film’s essential twist (“my sister, my daughter”) and final line (“It’s Chinatown”) have become the butt of many jokes, even on television shows, from The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers to Family Guy (see above). That’s a shame, because Chinatown is so much more than its title and central plot device. As discussed, it’s a masterpiece of nihilism, the kind of film which can send one into a pessimistic spiral. It’s arguably the most important film in connecting classical Hollywood with what the film industry would become. And it’s one of the greatest deconstructions of film noir ever made.

The new 4K UHD release from Paramount Pictures brings all of this to light, and not just because of the glorious restoration of the film (John Alonzo’s cinematography looks like it could’ve been filmed last year). A bevy of special features provides invaluable insight that helped shape this article and gives one an in-depth look into the film’s significance, artistically and historically.


From interviews with Robert Evans and Towne, Polanski, Nicholson, and others involved, to analysis from great film artists (Fincher, Soderbergh, Deakins, etc.), to behind-the-scenes gossip and stories from people who were there, to a detailed look at the historical Water and Power controversy that inspired the film, the new Chinatown release is essential. On top of all that, it includes Towne’s sequel (part of a proposed trilogy), The Two Jakes, directed by Nicholson and featuring him reprising the role of Jake Gittes. The Blu-ray of that presents a beautiful, albeit very different film that perfectly accompanies Chinatown. You can see some of the special features below:

  • A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson On Chinatown – Sam Wasson, film historian and bestselling author of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years Of Hollywood, on the importance of the film and its legacy.
  • Chinatown Memories – Legendary producer Hawk Koch shares stories from his time as assistant director on the film.
  • The Trilogy That Never Was – Sam Wasson discusses the planned third installment of what would have been a trio of movies featuring the character Jake Gittes.
  • Commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne with David Fincher
  • Water and Power: The Aqueduct, The Aftermath, The River & Beyond – A trilogy of documentaries examining the early 20th century history of water and power in Los Angeles and California.
  • Chinatown: An Appreciation
  • Chinatown: The Beginning and the End
  • Chinatown: Filming
  • Chinatown: Legacy
  • Theatrical Trailer

Chinatown is currently the number one best-seller in Blu-Ray Discs on Amazon. You can purchase it here.

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