Chinatown is set within the thrilling (/sarc) backdrop of 1930’s water rights disputes in Los Angeles, and spends, on the whole, very little time in Chinatown. The movie begins with private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at work, delicately breaking the confirmation of infidelity to a client who is having a bit of trouble paying his bill. In a simple but nice touch, this client does come briefly back into the film. For Gittes’s part, he was once a policeman in Chinatown, where he found that the best course of action was to do as little as possible, because the communication problems between the police and the immigrants made it just as likely that more harm than good would be done.
Gittes’s very next client is the wife of the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power, Hollis Mulwray (please note the similarity between this name and William Mulholland, real-life head of DWP and namesake of the famous street). She believes her husband is cheating and puts him on the case.
So Gittes does what any competent PI would do, and follows Mulwray around a bit. Although he does not appear to be present at any undersea, unexplained mass sponge migrations, Mulwray does manage to show up at locations where large amounts of water are being dumped into the ocean.
But Gittes does eventually hit paydirt, and snaps a few pictures of Mulwray kissing a young blonde girl (named “Shimmer”?) – pictures which he supplies to the Mrs. only to find them in the papers the next morning. Oh, and one more problem. The REAL Evelyn Mulwray (that would be Faye Dunaway) shows up at his office, and she’s hot. As in “mad”. Not as in “sexy” – I’ve never really understood the fascination with Faye Dunaway.
It becomes clear that Mulwray was set up with the “adultery” pics (the movie never makes clear whether honest-to-goodness adultery was happening…but if so…erm…), but this immediately makes no sense as Mulwray turns up drowned – subtly murdered, of course. So, why bother to blackmail a guy who was opposing your diabolical scheme to cause a water shortage in order to gain public support for a new reservoir which would eventually be used to irrigate the currently-dry San Fernando Valley (where you are cleverly buying up land like crazy), only to kill him a few days later? Why? The movie doesn’t really seem to catch on to this little inconsistency. But, that run-on sentence above basically describes the remainder of the plot.
Gittes, naturally, feels like he’s got to follow up on this after being duped, allowing Roman Polanski to make his cameo as a tough trying to scare him off the case.
Gittes gets his nose slashed, but eventually starts to figure out the plot detailed above. The kicker? Mulwray was formerly business partners with his father-in-law Noah Cross. While he’s already working for Evelyn, Cross commissions Gittes to find the mistress, whom he suggests might hold a clue to the whole mystery.
Hint: Noah Cross did it.
And Cross’ search for the mistress has a lot less to do with the case and a lot more to do with the fact that he’s estranged from his daughter, who turns out to be, oddly, harboring her.
Why? Because she’s her sister, so she says. Gittes doesn’t buy it. *Slap* OK, she’s her daughter. *Slap* OK, she’s her sister. *Slap* OK, she’s her daughter. *Slap* OK, she’s her sister AND her daughter. Oooof. Daddy/Grandpa’s been a bad, bad boy.
And the revelation that Mulwray was found drowned in a reservoir with saltwater in his lungs, and that Noah Cross’s eyeglasses were found in Mulwray’s backyard saltwater pond pretty much cinches the case for Gittes, who tries to call in a favor from his non-paying client to transport Mulwray and her…kinswoman from Chinatown to Mexico. But escape is not to be, because Cross and the cops get caught up in it. The police end up shooting a fleeing Evelyn in the head, and it’s clear that their unwitting intervention and Gittes’s is responsible for her death. “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” says one of Gittes’s associates in a brutal but perfect metaphor to end the film.