News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: Chinatown
This week’s movie was Chinatown, and you might think that having written about this one previously – actually more than once – that we would be out of things to say about it. But you’d be wrong. On this occasion we’ll address the movie’s controversial ending (a conclusion writer Robert Towne objected to so strongly at the time that he was barred from the set), and argue that the film had to end the way that it did. As director Roman Polanski explained, “If Chinatown was to be special . . . Evelyn had to die.” Towne’s original conception was that the great land swindle engineered by Noah Cross (John Huston) would be consummated, but Cross himself would be killed by his daughter Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) as punishment for his more intimate sins—the idea being that America was a place where small crimes could be met with some measure of justice, while large crimes marched on unchecked. But Polanski was making a seventies film, and he thought it essential that Cross “get away clean, just like most bad guys really do.” Anything else “would be completely empty.”
How do we know Polanski was right? Well, for one thing, years later even Towne would come to see it that way, admitting that “in hindsight, I’ve come to the feeling that Roman was probably right about the ending.” And of course there is the essential seventies-ness of it all. As a revisionist noir, Chinatown strips its would-be hero, the intrepid and capable Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), of the mythic status of the private eye: a tough but decent guy who takes his lumps, sticks to the code, and makes the world a slightly better place setting a few things right. But Gittes doesn’t make things right—he makes things worse.
That fate is sealed from the start, and everything that happens in the movie tells you that this must be so. Early in the action the ill-fated Hollis Mulwray insists he “won’t make the same mistake twice,” but that is exactly what Jake will do. As he reluctantly recalls in a rare moment of real intimacy, years previously in Chinatown he had tried “to keep someone from being hurt,” (a woman, of course), but he “ended up making sure she was hurt.” As he would again this time. Not that he wasn’t warned. When Cross admonishes him, “you may think you know what’s going on here, but believe me, you don’t,” Gittes retorts this was what his superiors said when he was a cop on the beat in Chinatown. But Cross has the last word in this exchange: “were they right?” They were. Jake didn’t understand what was going on—then and now.
This raises a larger point. A movie is made in a certain way. To then change its ending – say, perhaps in response to a bad test screening – is an unspeakable betrayal against the integrity of the film. Movies are not expositions of some objective reality—they are exercises in radical subjectivity. The audience sees only small pieces of (an imagined) overall picture—and not just any pieces, but those bits that the filmmakers want to show, and in the manner and style that they chose to show them. Every shot, every cut, every take, everything, is a choice, and those choices, in retrospect, in any movie worth its salt, should add up. (Did you catch the bag of Stay Puft marshmallows on Dana’s counter early on in Ghostbusters?) Which means that even if you are surprised by a movie’s ending (and there’s nothing wrong with that), a second time around marks on a path to that finish, even if they are subtle, should be discernable.
And so Chinatown must end with Evelyn dead, and not just dead, but shot dead through her flawed eye, because Jake made the same mistake twice. And the next time you watch it, you can follow along with all the hints that the film drops along the way, not the least of which are the recurring images of dead and shattered eyes, as if to warn you of the inevitable.
The Busted Watch
Dead Fish – Better with the Head On
Sunglasses Missing a Lens
There’s a Flaw in the Green Part of Your Eye
A Fate Foreshadowed: Evelyn’s Head Hits the Car Horn
The Incriminating Bifocals
A Black Eye