Preoccupied with genre, style and film history, James Berardinelli’s review of Chinatown fails to provide a meaningful analysis of the core structural elements of the film – it’s themes and premise. Where his viewpoint is accurate he fails to support his claims with a convincing argument or adequate facts to substantiate it, resulting in an unconvincing and unpersuasive critique.
Berardinelli fails to identify the key themes, barely acknowledging any of them at all. Briefly touching on corruption, he neglects to mention additional dominant themes regarding power, the search for truth, and human sexuality. The film explores the themes of corruption and power through the character of Noah Cross and his manipulation of authority and ultimately, an entire community. Cross’ power is so all-pervasive and his corruption so complete that he is able to descend to the depths of sexual depravity without fear of consequence or care for ethicality.
Largely neglected by Berardinelli is the search for truth – a recurring motif and theme throughout the film. Resorting to a heavy-handed visual metaphor, Polanski the man himself poses as the thug who slices Gittes’ nose, threatening, “You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? They lose their noses.” This injury provides a metaphor, which is sustained throughout the film, for how “nosiness” leads to “trouble”. As the deeper truths to the Waterway scandal are uncovered, so is the bandage from Gittes’ nose. The scars from the efforts of his search mark him as courageous yet vulnerable, and attractive to Evelyn. Gittes’ quest ultimately costs Mulwray her life, and he must live with the knowledge that he not only failed as a man to protect Evelyn but through his “nosiness”, caused her death. Having been the cause of something similar in the past Gittes is slow to learn that both within Chinatown and without, the truth is often best left uncovered.
From it’s opening – the very first frame, no less – Chinatown explores the theme of human sexuality. It is noted in the initial scene that the ubiquitous nature of infidelity in human society is what enables Gittes to earn a living. The private investigator’s calm acceptance and casual air regarding the distress this causes one of his clients – “don’t touch the Venetian blinds, I only got them in last week”, suggests there is a level of human frailty that he is un-phased by however, where he does draw the line is at deeper corruption. When he feels that he’s touched on the darker elements of human nature, the “old cop” in him is provoked into action against injustice. Berardinelli does acknowledge that this aspect of Gittes’ character is what “separates him from the rest of the hard-boiled detectives”. What he doesn’t acknowledge is Gittes’ journey, from profiting from common yet illicit behaviour to the unveiling of some of the darkest elements in human sexuality – rape and incest. According to writer of the screenplay, Robert Towne, rape is one of the major motifs in thefilm. And yet Berardinelli leaves this undiscussed. For Towne, ‘incest was the subplot’, and not only does Cross rape his daughter, but he also commits the acts of ‘raping the future’, and ‘raping the land’.
The above themes support the overarching premise of the film: that power corrupts, absolutely. Just as it is present in the lawless and more notorious areas of any town, so to is it in the major institutions of the city. For Polanski, Chinatown is every town – big or small – and you should always do ‘as little as possible’ to stay out of trouble, regardless of any surrounding injustice. Thus he turns Chinatown—the place as well as the idea—into a symbol of human corruption, chaos, and immorality.
Noting that a “heated argument” occurred between Towne and Polanski over the ending, Berardinelli applauds the fact that Polanski got his way. Dubbing Towne’s “more upbeat” ending as a “mediocre climax” despite having any proof of the virtues or otherwise of Towne’s original alternative, he credits the ending as being pivotal to the ultimate success and longevity of Chinatown as an icon of cinema. In making this assumption he is not entirely wrong, however Polanski’s “grim and unexpected conclusion” certainly has its own flaws. The ending of Chinatown feels fake and overly theatrical. With the full cast assembled for the final scene in an awkward and unbelievable mix of crass, contrived coincidences, it’s here that Polanski’s complete control and mastery of his craft descends into a dictatorial diatribe that reflects more on the nature of the man than on the harsher realities of life that he alluded to so artfully until this final act. It is a scene that is fatal for the heroine, for Gittes’ hope for a more just world, and for the audience’s total abandonment to an otherwise sublimely immersive story.
Despite these flaws, the conclusion is effective in cementing Polanski’s bleak, pessimistic vision of a world where the powerful will always prevail through their preparedness to break all the rules of decency that dictate how most of the hapless masses behave. In his statement regarding the conclusion, “involving events that have nothing to do with the big picture”, Berardinelli couldn’t be further from the truth, nor further from expressing it eloquently. He acknowledges that the film “works as both a mystery and an exploration of a deeper, more personal tragedy” but appears to miss it’s true meaning entirely.