China Town Essay, Research Paper
Film 101 M-W 12-1:50
ChinaTown, directed by Roman Polanski, is a non-traditional hard-nosed detective film made in the 70’s. The typical elements of character type are there; J.J. Gittes (a private detective in LA) played by Jack Nicholson is the central character, sharing the spotlight is Fay Dunaway playing the femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray. This film breaks all types of norms when compared to the hard-nosed detective films it is modeled after. The film is filled with allusions to the Big Sleep, especially taken from scenes of Marlowe and Vivian. Chinatown has formal elements indicative that it is going to be in the style of traditional Film Noir hardboiled detective, until you examine the characters’ personalities next to the story content.
The end of the ChinaTown has a major change from films like the Big Sleep or even the Maltese Falcon. J.J. Gittes ends up with nothing. He loses the girl he loves to a bullet; he loses the girl he is trying to protect to the sinister villain Noah Cross. The last shot of the film leaves the audience with no hope for the future. Gettis is back in ChinaTown, the place he has an obvious contempt for, the city that took his ex wife’s life. As the camera cranes upward opening the frame, and the crowd of Chinese people surrounds the scene, Gettis is escorted away, moving to the background. We are left with the impression of watching the retreat of someone who has just been bested and is going home alone in defeat with nothing but pain. This is a very dark ending, there is no hero getting the girl, or the split of emotions when the hero has to let the girl go to jail to uphold his code of honor for the murder of his partner. The audience is just left with a mostly empty frame.
Gettis is similar to Marlowe from the Big Sleep at first glance. Like Marlowe he once worked for the District Attorney and now is a private detective. Gettis also falls in love with the femme fatale character Evelyn, like Marlowe does for Vivian. Here is where most of the similarity between the characters stops. The hardboiled detective as a formal type is indicative of a protaganist with sharp social skills, congeniality and a flawless demeanor. Gettis destroys this ritual. Gettis has moments when he is smooth; by in large he is a far cry from Bogart’s portrayal of Marlowe. In one instance he hears a joke at the barbershop about a man learning how chinamen “Do” their wives. In the next scene Gettis is all excited to tell his associates the joke he just heard. While he tells the off color joke is the real Evelyn Mulwray , standing behind him waiting with her lawyer.
This would have never happened to Marlowe. Gattis looked like a fool.
Gettis couldn’t get a one-liner right if his nose depended on it. Throughout the film Gettis is screwing up jokes or lines that were meant to be sharp and humorous. In opposition to Gettis, Marlowe is socially smooth and rather witty. You could almost say Gettis is clumsy and crass. The impression we are left with about Gettis is normalizing. Gettis loses the stature that comes with a protagonist filled with bravado. He comes off kind of plain, almost corny, a regular guy.
As a detective Gettis has done very well by himself. He has Venetian blinds in his office, wears a well-tailored white suit and seems to be wealthy from his trade. In contrast, Marlowe from the Big Sleep is barely getting by with P.I. work. It is implied that he isn’t materialistic and it wouldn’t out of character for him to do work
Pro bono. Gettis is a P.I. known mostly for divorce work (catching adultery) and spying on the unsuspecting. As a protagonist he doesn’t come off very ethical. Polanski didn’t make a character the audience would love right off the bat. Supplying Curly with pictures of his wife’s adultery in the opening scene doesn’t paint Gettis into a picture of the model for ethics.
Eveylyn Mulwray is no Vivian in the Big Sleep. Although Eveylyn plays the dark women like Vivian, is lying to protect her family like Vivian and is striking to look at like Vivian, there is little else akin between them. Evelyn for the most part does not possess the shear will and fire that Vivian has. She is almost weak in comparison, and a terrible liar. When Vivian gets caught in a lie, she acts as if she is insulted that Marlowe even questioned her. Evelyn on the other hand gets frantic and guilt ridden.
As in the Big Sleep the main female character is trying to cover up and hide a disgraceful scandal. In the Big sleep it is a picture depicting a vulgar act; in ChinaTown it is the secret that Evelyn’s sister is the product of an incestuous relationship she was having willingly with her father. In doing this she is also trying to keep her evil father Noah Cross away from her sister/daughter. Evelyn’s frantic behavior, in contrast to the Vivian, might be attributed to the magnitude of the issue. Unlike Vivian, Evelyn is also covering up something from herself, something that is horrendous, unnatural. Her motives are not purely selfless.
Polanski creates a character that is totally twisted. She is so petrified by her guilt that just watching her cringe from the subject makes the viewer uncomfortable. Evelyn is like the femme fatale of the 40’s and 50’s because she ends up luring the protagonist into dangerous circumstances and then only divulges information when nearly forced to. Yet Evelyn breaks this archetypical character pattern. She is the victim like the one she is trying to save. She is a casualty of the life destroyer, Noah Cross. Vivian achieves innocence because she has become entangled in the dark web with the intent to save her sister. Evelyn is distinctly different because her virtue is gained only through the malevolence of Noah Cross her father. And even before this we have to surpass the thoughts of a Evelyn taking on an incestuous relationship willingly with her father.
Polanski chose to use the classic style associated with the hard-nosed detective. The film is shot almost completely from Gettis point of view, the first person point view. This gives us the impression that we are watching the mystery unfold at the same time he is. The narrative form is exemplified in the scene where Gettis is on bridge, watching Hollis Mulwray talk to the little boy on the horse in the flood plain. We start with an establishing shot of Hollis’s car driving down the riverbed. Then it cuts in tighter on Hollis. The next cut is of Gettis watching the scene through binoculars. In use of the film noir this narrative form we are left with no clue as to why Hollis is in the riverbed, what was said in the discourse with the boy on the horse or what Hollis is looking at on the hood of his car. At the same time neither does Gittes.
The hardboiled detective film is still being copied today, however loosely, on TV series and Movies.
The movies have some obvious similarities, but as finished products they are totally different. Polanski is able to twist the ideas he uses from The Big Sleep so much so, that as a whole ChinaTown can transcend any correlation it might have with The Big Sleep. Taken in its smaller parts by character analysis or in some scenes, the films resemble each other.