Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(3) (1994) 56-57
Set in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Chinatown limns the urban anomie created by wealth and political corruption.
Nicholson is Jake Gittes, former investigator for the District Attorney turned P.I., who becomes professionally and personally entangled in an elaborate plot to capitalize on L.A.'s desperate need for water. He's made a pawn in the power struggle between Horace Mulwray, L.A. Water and Power's chief engineer, who has refused to support the construction of a potentially unsafe dam in order to supply water to the counties surrounding the burgeoning city of Los Angeles, and Mulwray's father-in-law and former business partner, Noah Cross. Gittes unwittingly discredits Mulwray, and when the engineer is found dead--drowned, in the middle of a drought--Gittes resolves to find out who is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Although it is never made explicit, the situation all too clearly reminds Gittes of his time on the police force, when he was assigned to Chinatown and forced to follow orders dictated by greed and political expediency. Now he has lost his autonomy once again, and his sense of honor and justice, which does exist somewhere underneath his crudity and callousness, demands satisfaction.
Issues of class and race and their role in the criminal justice system are also played out in the film. The anti-Asian racism of mid-century L.A. is overt, institutionalized anti-Semitism is unremarkable, and one character is referred to as a "dumb Okie." As in John Gregory Dunne's great novel of postwar corruption in L.A.'s Catholic Archdiocese, True Confessions, where middle-class African-American families hire Japanese gardeners and their Japanese neighbors employ black maids, the casual and chilling racist attitudes reflect a constantly shifting social order where no one's position is secure. [End page 56]
Chinatown does not have a happy ending. No one is arrested, no one is formally punished for the crimes committed, ranging from murder to incest to gross betrayals of the public trust. Faye Dunaway, who does a marvelous job playing a deeply disturbed and victimized woman, is shot by the police after pulling a gun in an attempt to escape from her sinister father (Huston, who makes the blood run cold with his single-minded amorality). The rich have gotten richer, and the locale of Chinatown serves as a metaphor for an alien place where the rules we're supposed to live by no longer apply. The film is a great saga of the pervasiveness of urban political corruption--the kind that built the railroads and electric light and power systems and brought water to what was once the California desert. Director Polanski and writer Robert Towne play upon our knowledge of the great metropolis that Los Angeles has become, inviting us to consider our own complicity in accepting what "the price of doing business" can sometimes mean in terms of its effect on human lives.
Although this film deals more with the gestalt of the justice system than its mechanics, it deserves four gavels for its haunting depiction of the informal means of adjudicating urban problems to which we too often resort.
Julie Johnson McGrath, Ph.D.
Sellin Center for Studies in Criminology
and Criminal Law
University of Pennsylvania
firstname.lastname@example.org [End page 57]