The folllowing sample essay on Chinatown Neo Noir discusses it in detail, offering basic facts and pros and cons associated with it. To read the essay’s introduction, body and conclusion, scroll down.
Chinatown (72) is Roman Polanski’s take on the classical period of film noir (early 30’s) using faithfully the formulas used during that period. Making this a neo noir (explained later in my essay). From the intro this is evident, sepia coloured background with the credits rolling before the film to a very distinct trumpet lead track, a definite ode to his idols black and white pictures.
Film noir films are notoriously complex with many a twist and focus on a world of duplicitousness. The same is true with Chinatown, the basis of the story involves a small time Private Investigator (PI) Jake Gittes meeting a client who says her husband is cheating on her and could he investigate it. Mrs Evelyn Mulwray husband Hollis Mulwray is chief engineer for LA’s waterboard, a proposal to help “the desert state” get the water it needs by getting a pipe from the Alto Vallejo Dam to LA.
Hollis Mulwray refused to build it, as it was unsafe.
Jake soon finds out he has been set up as his client is not Mrs Evelyn Mulwray but a fraud. The PI then caught Mr Hollis Mulwray on camera with a younger woman; Jake Gittes and Hollis Mulwray are in the newspaper about the proposed affair. Once Jake Gittes finds out that Evelyn Mulwray want’s to sue him for the allegations and finding Hollis Mulwray has died he feels he must continue his case to find out about the truth on who has damaged his name and the problems with the water supply in LA.
To determine whether Chinatown (Polanksi, 72) is a film noir we have to look at the codes and conventions in what makes a classic film noir. Every genre has certain rules in order to classify them otherwise they are something else. The same is true with Chinatown, if it didn’t have certain lighting arrangements, certain characters and occupations or a dark and twisting story line (he story falls deeper and deeper into a constantly darkerning hole). it could be conceived as a simple crime caper. Though Film noir did evolve from the latter genre from the classic period of the 30’s, film noir is riddled with style, from dark brooding, sharp lighting, double meanings, and very over the top characerture like characters.
The lighting is incredibly important in a film even more so in establishing characters in Film Noir. In the first scene involving J.J Gittes is set inside his office, Film Noir lighting is marked by expressionistic lighting. This is very true of this scene. The vinician blinds create a very stark contrast to the well lit room, it could signifies clustraphobia, a prison like environment. Is Jake Gittes trapped within the refrainments of his job? Lighting can often propose questions in film noir.
Again when Jake waits inside Mrs Mulwray’s house, the house is incredibly dark as the bright sunshine peers through. This suggest to me the house carries a dark secret or is hiding something from easy viewing and the sun peering trough being the proverbial light at the end of the complex tunnel. And the final lighting ‘norm’ for a film noir is the use of hats. Hats carry a shadow over the eyes. Edgar Allen Poe once wrote “The eyes are the window’s to the soul..” Eyes are beleieved to hold the truth. I believe this a metaphor for everyone in the film hiding their emotions and or secrets from each other. In-fact eyes are very important in Film Noir as we later find another link with eyes to the story line. “Your eye. Something black in the green part of your eye.” “It’s a flaw in the iris.” This character as we later know has a flaw, and is destroyed by the end of the film when Mrs Mulwray is shot.
The sound in Chinatown is very much an ode to the iconic music and structures used during the classical period. Scenes concentrate on dialogue and do not interrupt them with music. However when music is introduced it is very atmospheric, the use of sharp stabbing piano standing the hairs on the back of your neck and the wavey violins over the unnerving orchestra, swinging emotions back and forth.
As I’ve stated before film noir does have strict codes and conventions in order for an audience to reconise it as a film noir piece. The characture like characters can normally fall into four types. Them being the anti hero (Jake Gittes), femme fatale (Mrs Mulwray),an older man(Noah Cross) and a dutiful girl(Catherine).
Although these are evident in Chinatown, there is slight variations on the more traditional characteristics. Mainly in the female characters of the film.
Everlyn Mulwray can be percieved as a Femme Fatale. Her constant jittering and jumpy mannerisms suggest she is keeping something from Jake Gittes. This is especially evident in a scene when Mrs Mulwray after reconising her husband had an affair, is signing Jake on as her PI. “Hollis and my father had a falling out. Not over me why would it be over me?Hollis felt the water should be in the public domain and my dad didn’t agree. Infact it was about the banderlit dam. Hollis never forgave him when it broke.” Aswell as a very visual metaphor of Everlyn lying whilst lighting a second cigarette Jake adds “You’ve already got one on the go.” She deffiantly fits into her Femme fatale role. However it is evident though enticing Jake into bed and feeding him lies that it isn’t for her social gain but to hide a dark secret and protect her insestual born child from ever finding out.
The second female Catherine as the dutiful girl is also different from classic nior.
In classical noir a dutiful girl often cute and the woman who the Anti hero would have a relationship with after being burnt by the femme fatale. However Catherine in Chinatown is different. Hidden for most of the movie due to the complex twist when she is revealed. She not the object of desire by Jake Gittes. She was born through an insestrual relationship between Everlyn Mulwray and her father Noah Cross. Instead Catherine is a metaphor for the public of LA. Innocence lost through no fault of her own she is being kept away from any problems she may not be able to handle. A lot like the residents and farmers of LA are being hid from the truth by authorities.
Authorities being a cooperation in Chinatown. Neo noir which is a progression of noir in which noir films storylines represent present time and problems of that world. Todd Erickson article write that noir really only becomes a genre (neo-noir) in the 80s, when it emerges from its ’embryonic’ state in the sixties and seventies. Though this indeed set before WW2 the theme is of coperations running society via money and greed.
Which leads onto Noah Crosses character. A greedy, incredibly wealthy, disgusting old man.
Often linked with a younger girl in film noir and in this case it is his daughter/granddaughter. Also from my studying I’ve noticed that older men seem to have ugly features and with these ugly features is a ugly personality of no morals. Cross is a metaphor for the coperation. Coperation are now commonaly known to rule governments and to have say in what the public should know. Cross is no different. However incredibly rich he is “How much you worth. Over fourty million?” “Oh my yes!” his power hungry attitude (Having sex with his daughter only suggests to me that he can do whatever he wants and certainly capable of anything.) He is blind from the power and will not stop at any ones expense. Again lighting shows him as a very dark character, covering his eyes once again as we couldn’t possibly imagine his thoughts?
And now finally our anti hero. Often PI’s they are reluctently thrown into downward spirals that they must fight for their life to get out of. And in this neo noir Jake Gitties is no different from cliched characters of the past (I feel it could be linked to a satire of womens rights changing about the time of this film being made. Hence the womens roles have changed yet the mens roles are the same.) Gittes isn’t moral laden as we see when he fights or talks to the police. He lies, he cheats to get where he wants to go. Nor as we also see is he right all the time. The film was shot so the audience only know what Jake Gittes knows, so we attach to him, though he is flawed there is a “everyman” about him and we as an audience attach to that. Throughout the film his morals change. Earning his living to keeping alive to also caring for Everlyn. You cannot help but be emotionally pulled by his enivitable devistation. This is more of an impact as Jake always has the right things to say to people. He is funny, witty and shrewd. Traits we cannot help but admire.
Vladmir Propp a Theorist on narratives suggests that folklore mythology is so powerful as narrative structures that you could link almost all stories in contempory settings to folklore. Propps ‘rules’ are
1. An interdiction is addressed to the hero “don’t go there etc”
2. The interdiction is violated “continues to find out about water system”
3. Villain decieves victim to take possesions or belongings…Tries to win confidence of victim (Noah Cross)
Now normally the list would go onto saying Villain is defeated or is punished. Polanski ovboiusly set out to break these rules. Which gives a more natural true to life story. This is essentially what neo noir is. You are well aware of the rules and use them, however these rules are often bent into new directions to create stark narratives.