Chinatown - Roman Polanski - Jack Nicholson - Faye Dunaway - Jake Gittes - Evelyn Cross Mulwray - Los Angeles street

1974, directed by Roman Polański

A tough private eye lands a new case that opens up a complicated web of crime and corruption in Los Angeles. He pursues his assignment beyond the call of duty, undeterred by threats and assault. He gets involved with a wealthy old man’s daughter who falls in love with him, though her uppermost wish is to protect her sister. Toward the end the detective confronts the villain, luring him into a house he’s visited a couple times before. The movie’s plot is full of hidden motives, leaving the viewer to work them out.

All of this describes The Big Sleep as well as it describes Chinatown. The two movies may be similar, but the difference is what illuminates both films. In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe keeps investigating after getting paid off because he’s driven by a need to know the truth. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes wants to clear his name and avoid embarrassment. The Big Sleep is a celebration of intellectual virtues – curiosity, cleverness, a love of truth – and its protagonist succeeds because of these qualities, but Jake Gittes goes through the whole movie misunderstanding the situation, and it ends tragically. The movie is about a kind of blindness. Its title is a metaphor for a hostile environment where it’s virtually impossible to do anything constructive. When Gittes had worked on the police force, he and Lou Escobar had been stationed in Chinatown with instructions to do “as little as possible” presumably because the foreign underworld was so impenetrable that any well intentioned action was likely to backfire. Jake tells Evelyn Mulwray about a woman there he had tried to save but ended up hurting.

Chinatown - Roman Polanski - Jack Nicholson - Jake Gittes - viaduct - Los Angeles River

Chinatown‘s first coherent line of dialogue, after Jake’s client Curly groans through a series of photos of his wife committing adultery, refers to blinds – the window blinds that Curly collapses into, but also a foreshadowing of the blindness that pervades the story. Again and again the movie shows variations of asymmetrically damaged or obscured pairs of lenses, as if to remind us that Gittes is walking through life half-blind. In the orange grove he loses a lens from his sunglasses. The incriminating bifocals in the tide pool are cracked on one side. When Jake needs to follow Evelyn’s car, he marks it by smashing one of the taillights. Earlier when tailing Hollis Mulwray, we see two stopwatches side by side, one smashed and the other intact. Curly’s wife has a black eye, and Evelyn has a birthmark in one eye. All of these figurative images of half-blindness culminate at the end in Evelyn getting shot through her left eye. Jake Gittes’ inability to see properly has resulted in a literal loss, not only of vision but also of life. Shortly before the tragic denouement another literal window blind lowers to fill the screen, obscuring the world outside just as Gittes’ vision is always obscured.

Chinatown - Roman Polanski - broken glasses - cracked bifocals - shattered lens

Even the cut in Gittes’ nose fits the pattern and points to his inability to see things whole. A thug played by director Roman Polański slices his left nostril open as a warning not to snoop around the reservoir. There’s a popular trope that a detective “follows his nose”, so that losing a nostril is like losing an eye. Earlier at the same reservoir he had lost a shoe in a sudden discharge of water, leaving the “gumshoe” half-shoeless in the same way he’s lost half his sight and half his smell.

Gittes is fooled from the outset, tricked by Ida Sessions posing as Mulwray’s wife. He believes he witnesses an illicit love affair between a lanky, graying civil engineer and a pretty teenage girl, when in fact the unlikely pair is nothing more than a man treating his stepdaughter with affection. He mistakes deputy water commissioner Yelburton for a villain, but he trusts the actual villain Noah Cross. Still, the greatest part of his blindness is to the sincerity of Evelyn’s feelings for him. As we come to see, she’s led a life of horror and deprivation. Raped repeatedly by her father, she was forced to bear a child who’s also her sister. To escape her father she married Hollis Mulwray – presumably the one man her father would accept as a son-in-law, as the marriage gave Noah Cross leverage over his straight-laced business partner. Finally, just when she’s widowed, a strong, attractive, confident man her own age comes into her life and pretends to be attentive to her. When Gittes takes her into the Mar Vista Rest Home and poses as her husband, she knows it’s an act, but when he gallantly offers her his arm and calls her “my sweet”, she starts to look at him differently, and that night she lets him kiss her and make love to her. Still, after all that, he treats her with suspicion. He slaps her around, drives her to her death, and helplessly lets her daughter Catherine fall into the clutches of Noah Cross. The ending in Chinatown is an absolute nightmare.

Chinatown - Roman Polanski - Jack Nicholson - Faye Dunaway - Jake Gittes - Evelyn Cross Mulwray - Mar Vista rest home

Polański and producer Robert Evans reportedly changed the ending, placing it in L.A.’s Chinatown over the objections of screenwriter Robert Towne, who evidently wanted “Chinatown” to be only a metaphor for the broader, less exotic, but equally daunting world we live in, where misunderstandings are the norm and good intentions so easily backfire. Towne needn’t have objected. That one scene in Chinatown is too perfunctory to diminish the metaphor, but it also brings a great advantage to the movie. Instead of forcing the audience to regard “Chinatown” as purely metaphorical, it adds a needed ambiguity. If we choose to read the title figuratively rather than literally, it’s because that’s the stronger choice – not because the movie tells us to.

Jake Gittes’ half-blindness is part of the metaphor that “Chinatown” implies, a world where people don’t see or understand their environment clearly, and so too are all the allusions to water and fish – as if people are like fish swimming in an ocean they can’t comprehend because they can’t see it from outside. The plot of course revolves around water, inspired by the “water wars” of early 20th century Los Angeles. Noah Cross schemes to buy up the San Fernando Valley cheaply by diverting water from its farms. The name “Noah” alludes to the biblical flood, and the movie frequently refers to fish. Cross owns the Albacore Club, whose fish logo appears in several scenes, and Curly is a fisherman. At City Hall a politician talks about the Pacific Ocean, which anyone can “fish in” but not drink. Polański’s character threatens to feed Gittes’ nose to his goldfish. Cross serves Gittes a plate of fish (with one eye up).

Chinatown - Roman Polanski - Jack Nicholson - Faye Dunaway - Jake Gittes - Evelyn Cross Mulwray - garden

The central metaphor of Chinatown is not so much a cynical or despairing view of the world, but rather a corrective to a typically masculine arrogance that assumes control of situations that no one can truly master. Neither a Los Angeles cop in Chinatown, nor a private eye trying to make sense of a tangled web of victims and criminals in a large network of corruption, can hope to judge who is right, who is wrong, and what needs to be done in a few short days. As in real life, playing the hero is dangerous both to oneself and to the people one’s trying to help. The movie acknowledges the messiness of reality and exposes the urge to oversimplify it, as Jake Gittes does while trying to restore his reputation. The Big Sleep too acknowledges the world’s complexity, even at the end when it grants leeway to Carmen, but its purpose is different from Chinatown‘s; it was made at the end of a long war when there was good reason to make an example of Philip Marlowe’s almost impossible cleverness, but in that respect Chinatown is more true to life, recognizing the limitations of human intellect.

Chinatown - Roman Polanski - John Huston - Noah Cross

Chinatown‘s picture of a detective unable to navigate a complex world is timeless, but it must have resonated particularly well in 1974, toward the end of the Vietnam War. The district attorney’s instructions to do “as little as possible” in Chinatown might be cynical in the context of an urban police force that owes protection to the whole community, but it would have been good advice for the military chiefs and politicians embarking on an ill-advised adventure in an unfamiliar country. Vietnam’s cultural and geographic proximity to China (as in “Chinatown”) should have helped Americans to get the point. Whatever good intentions might have motivated America’s involvement in anti-communist struggles in southeast Asia, an understanding of the inevitable messiness of war should have been enough to dissuade military action. As it happened, the United States blundered through the war with the same half-blindness that led to such a disastrous ending in Chinatown.


The Big Sleep – L.A. private eye who keeps pursuing a case after fulfilling his bargain, in spite of threats and violence; daughter of wealthy old man who loves the detective but whose protective concern for her sister makes her suspicious; detective confronts villain at end by luring him to a house he’s visited a few times before; female lead wears a lace veil over her face (in the first cut of The Big Sleep); complicated web of inscrutable motives

Knife in the Water – Male protagonist who imagines himself in control when he is in fact lost

Blow-Up – Irony of a photographer or detective who is unable to see things properly

The Passenger – Jack Nicholson plays a character described metaphorically or indirectly as blind

Full Metal Jacket – Critique of the arrogance behind the Vietnam War, and of the assumption that it could be fought neatly


  • Gittes spies on Mulwray through a single side mirror of his car
  • Two stopwatches side by side, one smashed and one intact
  • The magnifying glass in Yelburton’s desk drawer, meant for use with one eye
  • Left lens of Gittes’ sunglasses lost in the fight with the orange farmers
  • Fish head at Cross’s ranch with one eye up, one down
  • One window of Evelyn’s car shot when leaving the Mar Vista Rest Home
  • Birthmark in the green iris of Evelyn’s eye
  • Gittes smashes one taillight of Evelyn’s car
  • One pane of Ida Sessions’ front door broken
  • Left lens of Noah Cross’s bifocals in the tide pool cracked
  • Curly’s wife’s black eye
  • Evelyn shot through her left eye in Chinatown