Chinatown hit the big screen in 1974, giving audiences a look at one of cinema’s greatest treasures in storytelling. We meet Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at his office, a private investigator with a private collection of alcohol in his cupboards, and a distraught customer tearing at the blinds. He deals in break-ups, getting the dirt when the dirt in sought. This is the only thing we need to know about Gittes for a little while, before we enter a world beyond his control. (You should also note, there’ll be a few spoilers beyond this point. Consider yourself warned, if you care about that sort of thing.)
He deals in secrets and lies, and all the dangers they can cause. When Mrs Mulwray arrives at his office, we should be suspicious. She suspects her husband of cheating. When we meet Hollis Mulwray, questions begin to crop up. He’s a gentle looking man, thin and unassuming. He’s also the Chief Engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, while the city’s gone into drought and he refuses to build a dam that might resolve the situation. There are so many triggers here that Gittes ignores, so many things that would make anyone else roll their eyes in disbelief that Hollis could be a cheater, and that anyone could even think he could manage it. He’s too public, and too decent, and still Gittes’s men find him with a woman that isn’t his wife.
Then, of course, the woman who hired Gittes to track Hollis wasn’t his wife, either. Her name is Ida Sessions, a woman whose significance remains in the dark for a large portion of the movie, beyond getting the photos from Gittes and into the paper. Enter Evelyn Mulwray, the real wife of our Chief Engineer – a man who subsequently proves incredibly difficult to get a hold of.
When we finally get to see his face again, we’re also introduced to Luo Escobar- Gittes former partner in Chinatown. It’s alluded that Chinatown was a bad time in the PI’s life, a time he’d like to forget. Escobar’s moved up in the force, just enough that when Gittes sneaks onto private property – a freshwater reservoir – to see the body of Mulwray dragged into view, he’s able to allow Gittes to stay.
With Mulwray dead, and Gittes still considering himself a client of Evelyn’s, the threads of the story finally tie themselves together: Gittes’s new life digging up dirt meets the water crisis of LA, and his old life in Chinatown tags along for the ride. Three stories, two happening concurrently. This is why we study Chinatown, why Syd Field writes about it in such detail in Screenplay, and presumably why it made Spike Lee’s list. A complicated set of tales wove into a single movie.
Under contract with Evelyn Mulwray – and faux-Mulwray – Gittes uncovers a lot about the water conspiracy of LA. From dried up relationships to dried up water reserves, his work keeps him tangled up in the biggest political issue the movie can muster: keep the desert off the streets. LA is focused on the water – where it is, and where it isn’t. Hollis uncovered the truth before his death – it led to his death, and subsequently to the reunion of Gittes and Escobar. It was an obsession for Hollis Mulwray – always looking for water. From the beach, Echo Park, and his own back yard, and let us not forget his position in the Department, water is Hollis Mulwray’s life, right from the beginnings of his fortune, when he and Noah Cross owned the city’s water.
Cross is important. He’s a vile man, with a wicked temper, a sense of greed greater than the devil’s, and a daughter in Evelyn Mulwray. He was critical in the construction of the Alto Vallejo, which later burst – an event that resulted in Hollis’s refusal to build another reservoir for LA. He knows what will happen – or at least suspects it – and when the water is dumped from the city’s supplies during the drought, Cross enters Gittes’s sights. Cross who owned the water, and whose fishing club is revealed to support a group of elderly men and women whose names come up on Gittes’s radar.
Remember Ida Sessions? Her involvement in the case, in getting Gittes involved, resulted in her murder. Gittes receives a last note from her, to look at the obituary column. He also runs into Escobar again. Old lives cross in new stories.
Between the obituaries and the public records for land purchases in LA, the puzzle begins to fall into place. The men and women Cross supports own the desert, where the land is cheap, and none of them even know it. With Cross intending for the land to receive LA’s new reserves of water – and with Mulwray out of the picture – the plot turns towards keeping Evelyn safe. Evelyn, and the woman we once suspected of being Hollis’s girlfriend.
Her name is Katherine Cross; she’s one more reason to hate Noah, and one more reason to keep Evelyn safe. Hollis’s death was no accident, his lung’s flooded with saltwater, and Noah Cross the number one suspect. With Noah on the lookout for her, after a dirty affair years before, and both Evelyn and Katherine sent to Chinatown for protection, the threads of individual stories that tied together at Hollis’s deathbed meet the point where they’ll become untangled.
In a flurry of activity that sees Evelyn dead and Katherine leaving with Cross, Gittes’s past has finally caught up with him.
This is what we’re dealing with as an audience of Chinatown, a mish-mash of stories that somehow manage to work. Looked at together, it takes some attention to put it all into a cohesive plot. Separately, we’ve got a PI who can’t get away from the trouble he left the police force over entangled with a woman whose past relationship with her father has led to the complete downfall of her life. The history of Chinatown, and the history of the Cross family, meet in a bloody end, with Gittes dragged back into one to mingle with the other.
Chinatown is as much the story of the water crisis of LA, and the supposedly failing marriage of an engineer, as it is the story of a PI who never conquered his demons, who instead took up showing others everything wrong with their lives.
Mulwray’s death is a message no one received, but for the audience, and for readers of the script, it marks a significant turning point in the story. It’s the point at which everything comes together almost entirely by accident, and sparks the events that won’t end until the death of the second Mulwray.
We study Chinatown for the way in which these stories are told, stories of life and death, love and abuse, and the politics of need and greed. We remember it for its closing line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”