At a recent 35mm screening of the film, Chinatown, the titular city’s sense of seediness, shattered hope and corruption became ever more evocative as an eternal place in the movies. What starts out as cursory mentions that serve as details of the main character J.J. “Jake” Gittes’s (Jack Nicolson) past takes on a mythological and eventually tragic heft, which is punctuated with the last line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
In my rewatching of Chinatown, what struck me most was how the film functions as a neo-noir. With its sepia-toned opening credits and Jerry Goldsmith’s romantic classical score, one would immediately think they are watching a traditional Noir picture. This aspect even extends to the first scene, where the first few shots are of black and white images of a sordid affair, confirmed by a character’s audible reaction to seeing them.
Throughout the remainder of its running time, Chinatown impressively does not wear its noir influences on its sleeve. German Expressionist imagery and black and white photography are replaced by dirty, murky and occasional luscious uses of brown and blue. Moreover, shadowy silhouettes and twisted architectural creations are done away with in favour of radiant mountain shots and eye-widening infrastructure.
Even the characters transcend their archetypical trappings. The most prominent example of this comes from Evelyn Cross Mulwray, (Faye Dunaway) who initially seems as though she is going to be the seductive siren who works in the mould of the Femme Fatale. However, this expectation is subverted by two things. The first is Faye Dunaway’s performance. She imbues Evelyn with a sense of hard determinism, careful thinking and a wistful demeanour. Secondly, the writing contributes to this genre subversion as Robert Towne’s screenplay paints Evelyn as the most considerate character in the story.
Nevertheless, Chinatown wholeheartedly embraces Film Noir by adhering to the meaning of the word, which translated from its native French origin means “dark film.” At the heart of the picture resides a savage secret that is masked in a universal desire and the movie’s final reel is the realisation that it will flourish, and our protagonist will be left scarred by the experience.