One of the things that made the 1940s such a great decade for film was its development and perfection of the genres that remain favorites today. One of the things that made the 1970s such a great decade for film was its re-structuring and making room for fresh innovation in those genres. Most times 1970s films used the conventions of 1940s movies to end up doing their own thing. The Godfather movies and The Sting are definitely gangster movies, but they’re nothing like the ones in the 30s and 40s, in the same way that they’re nothing like each other. Annie Hall is definitely a romantic comedy but it’s a far cry from The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year.
Roman Polanski’s Chinatown isn’t the usual 70s movie, not that there really is such a thing as my last few sentences show. It doesn’t do it’s own thing. It inhabits the very same world, even the very same Los Angeles as the 1940s detective noir films. J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is the same type of emotionally detached detective as those Humphrey Bogart played whose every line crackles with dark humor and cynicism yet is deep down very concerned about justice. The first line he speaks is to a grieving man who has just found out his wife is having an affair. Instead of offering any kind of empathetic response, he crustily says “Curly, don’t eat the Venetian blinds.”
Inhabiting the same world of 1940s noir does not mean that Chinatown is unoriginal. All the great noir movies are loaded with twists that make sure everything revealed in the end is like nothing that could have been expected from the beginning. Chinatown offers that in ways many filmmakers probably wanted to do in the 40s but couldn’t because of decency requirements. But the main thing that sets Chinatown apart from 40s noir is its insistence on starting dark (what the French word noir actually means) without ever relenting.
Because J. J. Gittes is like all the great detectives in the 40s movies, he isn’t quite as hardened as he appears. He still had a desire to see justice accomplished, and all the 40s detectives, at least in the movies I’ve seen, have gotten that pleasure. If you haven’t seen Chinatown, I promise I’m not giving anything way by saying that J.J. Gittes doesn’t get to see the justice he’s looking for. The movie has to work that way because although it is a 40s film noir made in the 70s, it is also an indictment on the American criminal justice system.
From the beginning, we see people who make their living in seedy ways. J.J. Gittes is accused of being the seediest, when we get to see that his attempt for justice is real and that he’s really the only protagonist the movie has. He’s the only character with any empathy, even though his attitudes and language constantly betray that empathy. Underneath everything we see, we can tell that J.J. is a man who has seen the rich owning the city and being able to get away with anything they want because they’re rich. But we also see a man who believes things don’t have to be that way. He’s hardened because of what he’s seen but he’s not so hardened to believe that it has to stay that way. But as it was true in the 40s and still in the 70s, it’s still true in 2017 that wealth often wins over truth and justice in America. Chinatown brilliantly uses all the conventions of a favorite genre and of a time come and gone to tell the truth of the culture of its own time, something that unfortunately is still very much true in the culture today. And because it is so bleak and hopeless, it helps us really feel that truth. As we feel that truth and own it, we won’t be as emotionless as J.J. Gittes, but we can have the same hope that he had, the hope that truth and justice are possible in our culture no matter how removed it is from them right now. Wealth is still the highest priority in our nation; the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, the helpless don’t get helped, the criminals go unpunished and the inequity of the criminal justice system shows the rampant racism still alive in the U.S.A. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. The more we see the reality and the bleakness of the situations we live in, just like Chinatown did for its own time through a story set in the past, the more we are able to empathize with others and find small ways to make a difference in our surroundings.