Since Chinatown was released in 1974, admiration of the film has steadily grown. Prompted by a newly published book, Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, critics have been lavishing praise on the film in most major papers and magazines.
What explains Chinatown’s enduring appeal? A great part of it lies in the technical skill marshalled to create one of the last great Hollywood films. But the deepest source of the film’s power is its elemental, even mythical story.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown shows how the creation of the consummately modern and American city followed ancient and bloody patterns. The villain is Noah Cross (John Huston), a city father who murders and rapes. Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private eye who uncovers Cross’s crimes. In the process, he learns the truth, taught most eloquently by Augustine, that there can be no justice in the City of Man.
Chinatown is often remembered as the last hurrah of classic Hollywood – blessed by a happy confluence of talents and sensibilities, evincing a degree of craft and care that can make later films look slapdash.
Wasson gives the fullest account yet of the various contributions to Chinatown’s success. Screenwriter Robert Towne, an LA native, transmuted his love of the city into a thoroughly researched script with a hopeful ending. Director Roman Polanski brought a darker sensibility to the project. He was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto – and a widower, since the recent brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. He ruthlessly streamlined the story and insisted on a bleaker conclusion. Robert Evans, the producer intervened at the last moment to replace a modern soundtrack with Jerry Goldsmith’s wistful score. Anthea Sylbert, who did Chinatown’s impeccable costume design, pored over the photo albums of friends and acquaintances in order to create a wardrobe absolutely true to the Los Angeles of 1937 – not 1936 or 1938. “I used to even think about what was in their pockets,” she said.
The production’s concern for historical accuracy was not mere pedantry. They were mining the history of LA for a story of depravity whose details were particular and whose resonance was universal.
The plot was based on Carey McWilliams’s Southern California Country, the finest book on the rise of LA. In a chapter on California’s “Water Wars”, McWilliams detailed a scheme that he described as the “the rape of Owens Valley”. Beginning in 1903, a group of wealthy men began acquiring land and water rights in a valley lying to the north and west of LA. Exploiting their connections to government agencies, they pretended to be working on an irrigation project that would benefit the locality. In fact, the water would be diverted by a 233-mile aqueduct, turning the valley into a vast waste, a tributary province to the imperial ambitions of LA.
In order to persuade the people of Los Angeles to approve a bond issue for the aqueduct, the project’s promoters created an artificial water shortage. “Thousands of inches of water were clandestinely dumped into the sewer system from reservoirs and storage dams” in the run-up to the vote to approve the funding. The contrived shortage became so severe that people were forbidden to water their gardens or lawns.
As it turned out, the aqueduct did not reach what were then LA’s city limits. It instead terminated miles outside the city, where its water was used to irrigate land purchased by backers of the scheme. McWilliams calls these men “empire builders”.
The architects of the Los Angeles aqueduct provided the model for Chinatown’s villain, Noah Cross, a leading citizen pushing an aqueduct scheme. Cross is the “empire builder” par excellence, a man whose ambition overruns all constraints. He will do anything – lie, cheat, kill – in furtherance of his desire.
Gittes asks Cross why he continues to plot when he is already fabulously wealthy: “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” “The future, Mr Gittes – the future,” Cross replies. As Augustine taught, concupiscence is limitless.
When Cross’s designs are threatened by the man who had been his close friend and collaborator, he orders the man killed. With this act of fratricide, he becomes a modern version of Cain – the man who murdered his brother and founded the first city, which he named Enoch.
He also imitates Romulus, another empire builder who committed fratricide. Just as Romulus and his men raped the Sabine women, who were their guests and should have been able to trust in their care, Cross rapes the daughter he has a special duty to protect. Like Romulus, who came to be worshipped in the temples of Rome, Cross enjoys public esteem.
“Course I’m respectable,” he says. “I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Someday, he knows, his name will be on a famous street.
Chinatown follows Genesis and classical history when it proposes a connection between founding and fratricide. When Cain founded the first city, Augustine teaches, he founded also the City of Man, a realm ruled by sin that exists in opposition to the City of God. Justice in such a city will always prove illusory, every virtue a vice in disguise. Cain’s murder of his brother is therefore typical. It shows what civic life is like when untouched by grace. “We cannot be surprised,” Augustine says, that Cain’s archetypal crime “should, long afterwards, find a corresponding crime at the foundation of that city which was destined to reign over so many nations” – Rome.
Nor is it surprising that this crime would recur in the mythical founding of the quintessential American city, LA. America now stands in the place of Rome, dominating other countries but dominated by concupiscence, blessed and cursed by the translatio imperii. The builders of other American cities tended to imitate old world models, but the makers of modern LA buried the Spanish past and sought to create a city of the future, a place where people could escape cold, gloom, and the weight of history. As the creators of film noir (classically set in LA) understood, the bright, direct sunlight only seemed to cast starker shadows.
Chinatown’s view of the earthly city is no more positive than Augustine’s. The civic powers are enslaved to evil, as Jake Gittes learns when he is told that Noah Cross “owns the police”. Nothing he does can bring justice to such a community. We see a public hearing at which outraged citizens desperately call for reform. But the very policy they are supporting – the publicly funded aqueduct proposed by Noah Cross – will be used to benefit a few wealthy men at the expense of the common weal. Political effort is futile.
Likewise the efforts of individuals. When Gittes tries to help Cross’s daughter, he only seals her misery. In the city founded by a fratricide, even the family is irretrievably corrupt. Cross’s daughter stutters whenever she is forced to say his name. She wants to escape her hellish patrimony, but it follows wherever she goes. It consumes not only her but her daughter, who is the product of Cross’s incestuous assaults. It is an ancient, inescapable, original sin, a curse from which Gittes cannot deliver her.
His good intentions meet with disaster in the film’s final sequence, which takes place in the titular neighbourhood. His partner counsels indifference, uttering the immortal line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” He thus sums up the futility of any merely human effort to reform the earthly city.
Augustine’s negative view of the City of Man did not lead him to despair. He drew hope from his vision of the City of God, a community of men freed from sin by their regeneration in Christ, just as they had been enslaved to sin through their earthly generation. He urged men to make “this homeland of flesh where you were born … a part of the homeland into which we are born not physically, but by faith.”
This aspiration has guided every Christian who has worked to build a more just and Christian polity, including the Spaniards who honoured the Mother of God when they established El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, the city we know as LA.
There is no such horizon of hope in Chinatown. In a world without grace, justice is impossible. But in the final scene, after Gittes’s dreams have been crushed, Polanski cranes the camera upward to attain what Wasson, in his new book, describes as a “more godly vantage point”. It is the same camera movement used at the end of Casablanca (1942), and it has the effect, Wasson says, of “imbuing the wreckage with a shiver of romantic awe”.
The disillusionment experienced by Gittes helps us view politics from a more godly vantage point. The cities of men – Enoch, Rome, and LA – have been built upon crime and watered with blood. Their city fathers have made their careers on rape and fratricide. Though it does not always take such monstrous form, all men are subject to an inherited evil, an original sin, unless they are freed from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.
Perhaps the dream of the Spaniards is dead. Or perhaps the City of Angels, and all our cities, can be made part of the City of God. Not by human effort, but through the working of grace. We can hope for this even without supposing that our earthly communities are replacements for the true community that is the City of God. Even the best earthly city, Augustine writes, can only ever be the “shadow of a city”, an imperfect figure whose deficiencies hint at the fulness to come.
Seen in this light, Los Angeles, film noir’s city of shadows, becomes the shadow of a city whose founder heals instead of killing, and protects those whom men abuse.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
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