Chinatown and the Tunnel at the End of the Light

Jim Shepard

You know, I was an apocalyptic before, but by George W. Bush’s second term as president, I thought, this is getting ridiculous. The situation in our country—and the situation our country led the way in creating around the world—started to look so undeniably untenable that it seemed to create a kind of perverse optimism: wherever you looked, people in opposition to the administration and what it so flagrantly represented were taking heart. Given that global warming, or the mainstream media’s abdication to its corporate controllers, or congressional corruption, or the assault on Americans’ civil rights was by even then so evidently out of control, the thinking seemed to be that the pendulum should be swinging back the other way any day now, now that enough people of conscience had been educated and galvanized by the spectacle. Every monarchy produces a bad king occasionally, right? But the system is self-correcting, isn’t it?

Sure, if that’s what you want to think. Who am I to say otherwise? But here was my fear, as the Bush administration’s second term wound down: that our political culture had by that point created a mess that was so unprecedentedly debilitating and insoluble—and that adverb was the key variable that made our situation beyond the ability of institutions like the New York Times to grasp—that, once our present leaders were tossed out and the hapless opposition, in whatever form (moderate Republicans? Some sad version of stay-the-course Democrats?) got their hands on the wheel, they’d simply be there in the driver’s seat when we hit the tree. Or trees. Maybe if they were lucky they’d do what they could to diminish the impact. And who would be standing by and looking on with their arms folded, no longer adhering to their enraged principle that in tough times the country needs to rally behind its president? Our friends on the extreme right, who would either still have, or would take back, control of the Republican Party. And they’d still control as well large portions of the media: a media that would begin, the moment the Bush administration finally left office, to scathingly judge the inadequacy of those in power. If we never stopped hearing about A Presidency in Crisis when that diagnosis was based on comparative trivia like Whitewater, I could only imagine what sort of ammunition consistent bad news from an unpopular war would provide. And it wasn’t hard to predict that Fox News’s method of spinning imperial setbacks was going to be to claim that everything had just been turning around when we cut and ran: a fantasy position much more appealing to most Americans than the news that we fucked up and now were paying for it. Which would then lead to a restoration of the extreme right.

In other words, in that model, the more things head into the toilet—whether or not the right is directly responsible—the more Americans, bewildered, upset, resentful, and threatened—will turn to the right for solutions. The right, after all, offers Order. It offers Strength. It offers a Return to the Old Values. It offers to do away with complexity. It offers to continue to let us embrace a fantasy of omnipotence. Its motto is: We should never as a nation blame ourselves for anything. We should always blame others. Think that motto has power in hard times? Ask the Germans.

This vision of an America that generates debilitating and self-reinforcing and therefore insoluble messes has a cinematic model, cranked out forty-three years ago now and still the gold standard for clear-eyed understanding of the Hey, nothing personal malevolence of late model capitalism: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Forty-three years ago a worrisomely jaded Polish emigre director and a notoriously saturnine screenwriter teamed to produce a movie seemingly constructed to instill in its audience a startling amount of despair, a despair that was only somewhat mitigated by the exhilaration provided by the filmmaking. Roman Polanski—about whom the critic Andrew Sarris remarked, “His talent is as undeniable as his intentions are dubious”—and Robert Towne—whose scripts specialized in turning a stubbornly jaundiced eye on American ideals—ended up detesting each other, but out of the backbiting came Chinatown, a film noir of legendary design (Towne’s script is, famously, the Bible for aspiring screenwriters) and influence.

Chinatown popped up during that mini–golden age of American moviemaking centered around the early seventies, another one of those periodic historical moments when it had again dawned on Americans that we had let certain aspects of our everyday corruption and hypocrisy get out of hand. A lot of the best movies produced in that tiny window of opportunity—from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret—were deeply invested in the traditional American film genres, but not interested in genre demolition or parody as much as renovation from the inside: in both playing out and interrogating the genre’s rules.

So in Chinatown, everything we expect is there, and Jack Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the private eye with a past working out of his office in L.A., and soon enough he comes across Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, the mystery woman who’s all smooth control, coolly serene sexual independence, and transparent deception, and everybody’s enmeshed in a satisfyingly labyrinthine plot.

Except something’s off from the beginning. Even though both stars, thanks to cinematographer John Alonzo, have never looked more glamorous, private-eyeing has apparently been pretty seriously de-romanticized. The movie begins with our riffling through some photos of a man and a woman having sex in the woods. Jake’s delivering them to a fat sweaty guy who’s been suspicious of his wife. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who helped create the private eye archetype in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941, let us know in no uncertain terms that he specifically prided himself on not doing divorce work. How did he make his money? Oh, you know: every so often a jewel-encrusted priceless figurine stolen centuries earlier from the Knights Templar happened by.

Jake, on the other hand, spends the movie’s first twenty minutes peeking in windows and scrabbling around rooftops with a camera. Divorce work is his métier, as he somewhat pathetically informs Mrs. Mulwray later. He’s got a squalid and banal job, and people judge him for it: “You got a helluva way to make a living,” one pillar of the community tells him in a barbershop, and while that kind of comment would occasion only a wisecrack from Sam Spade, it causes the insecure and humiliated Jake to fly off the handle and offer to take it outside.

He spends a lot of time earning that contempt, though. A surprising amount of the time he’s left looking like an idiot. As he also explains to Mrs. Mulwray, “I’m not supposed to be the one caught with his pants down.” And in terms of his genre, he isn’t. But in Chinatown he almost always is. The-rank-and-file cops treat him like a guy who could not have a more pathetic way of earning a living. He tells a long, embarrassingly vulgar joke to his cronies without realizing that Mrs. Mulwray’s been waiting behind him. He’s taken in entirely by a second-rate actress who makes him a pawn in discrediting an honest man. (We remember that women lying were never, for Sam Spade, a problem: “Well, we didn’t believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy; we believed your two hundred dollars.”) The movie’s working, in other words, to strip him of a certain portion of his dignity. Private eyes need their personal style, and what another critic, the previously mentioned Robert Warshow, said the Western hero understands, the private eye understands, as well: “A hero is someone who looks like a hero.” And however much Jake is determined to continue to look like a hero with his fedora and sunglasses and Man of Action seriousness of purpose, there is the problem, after he gets his nose slit open, of this big white clown bandage on which he has to perch his shades for pretty much the rest of the movie.

Very few movies have made such expert use of Jack Nicholson’s persona. (The role was written for him.) That tension between being the coolest guy in town and looking like an idiot has always been a part of what he projects. And in this case, sure, he’s got all these limitations and he doesn’t seem to be doing so well in terms of avoiding embarrassment. But he’s still got that smile and those eyebrows, and that insouciance, and that joie de vivre, all of which not only work their usual magic but also win us over to the likelihood that he probably is the best man in his world. He’s competent, he’s smart, he’s more honest than most, and he’s gallant in his own hard-boiled way. None of it does him much good.

Mostly because of what he’s facing. At a county commissioner’s hearing early on we discover that Los Angeles is built on a desert and is in the midst of a drought. Water, it turns out later, is being diverted from farmers who desperately need it in order to drive them out of business and devalue their land, making it, then, easy pickings for those in the know. That particular plot point was based on a real conspiracy in which businessmen and politicians connived to force through a water legislation scam. A scam startlingly similar to a recent massive energy crisis in California that turned out to be no crisis at all, which made millions for those who engineered it. Hmm. What’s that old saying of Marx’s about history? First time tragedy, second time farce?

The earlier scam was, for Robert Towne, the perfect image for the perverse omnivorousness of capitalism. Water itself—the staff of life—was the commodity that was to be hoarded, manipulated, and denied. Hey, there: Want the stuff that allows you to live? Well, I own it.

The offhanded perverseness and bottomlessness of that kind of greed was one of the main reasons for the peculiarly understated ferocity of Chinatown’s nihilism. (And ferocious nihilism is in my experience a pretty unusual characteristic in a successful, and even much loved, commercial film.) It certainly represents a worldview most of us would refuse to accept. And therein lies the opportunity, as far as malefactors are concerned.

Jake’s like us: he thinks he’s been around, thinks he’s cynical, thinks he’s well aware that people are mostly out for themselves. But for all his confident professionalism, he’s no more ready for what gets unfolded than we are. And the movie’s careful to dramatize the somewhat glacial pace at which he does start to figure things out.

Early on we follow him through puzzling and endless stakeouts of Mrs. Mulwray’s husband (the good man he unwittingly discredited), during which we learn, like Jake, all sorts of critical information without knowing it. After Mulwray is murdered, the solution to the crime and the keys to the conspiracy all pass by on display in crucial clues which he, and we, overlook. He spots a glint that turns out to be eyeglasses in Mulwray’s saltwater pond the first time he visits, but is distracted from investigating; later he’s informed that Mulwray, who supposedly drowned in a runoff culvert for rainwater, had saltwater in his lungs. Everywhere he goes, Jake sees and ignores symbols representing the Albacore Club, the organization the bad guy is using to mask his plan.

But when we remember the scene of Jake telling his joke, we’re reminded that he’s not only someone who doesn’t always see everything he needs to—Mrs. Mulwray’s right behind him, his subordinates are signaling frantically, and in his delight at telling the joke, he never catches on—he’s also someone who, at crucial times, doesn’t know how to listen. So that the process of detection in the movie, and its structure, becomes a matter of having to return to places we’ve been before—nearly every location gets visited twice—in order to discover what we missed the first time.

He never does figure it out, and neither do we. Finally, we’re all just flat-out told what we need to know, by the principal malefactor, Noah Cross, and the principal victim, his daughter, Evelyn Mulwray. It turns out that the perversity of that unappeasable acquisitiveness in the public arena has been mirrored in the private one, and the child that Cross has hired Jake to find is the daughter he fathered with his own daughter. The way Towne or Polanski might put it is that what Noah Cross is intending to do to Southern California, and his granddaughter, he’s already done to his daughter.

Noah Cross is played by John Huston, the man who directed the already-mentioned Maltese Falcon, so he’s returning here like the genre’s unnatural father—speaking of incest—and presiding over a movie that goes on to kick the floor out of film noir precisely the way the Bush administration kicked the floor out of our everyday expectations of the corrupt malevolence of politicians.

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” Cross warns Jake early on. “But believe me, you don’t. Why is that funny?” And Jake explains his knowing chuckle by responding, “It’s what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.” And Cross answers, “Yeah? Was he right?” To which Jake doesn’t respond.

Once Jake thinks he has cracked the case, he confronts Evelyn Mulwray and starts to reenact the ending of The Maltese Falcon: he calls the police to come and arrest her, and uses the pressure of their imminent arrival to try to demand the truth, or in other words, demand she acknowledge his version of events, his mastery of the puzzle, by confessing to what he’s already figured out.

But he’s not in that kind of world anymore. And neither are we. The femme fatales in film noir are supposed to harbor a steamy secret; this one, however, turns out to reside a few subfloors below what we’ve come to expect. And Evelyn turns out to have been as powerless in the face of forces like Noah Cross and what he represents as Jake is. Jake, whose specialty has been families’ sexual secrets, has stumbled across something here that’s topped everything: long-term, incestuous rape.

But that would still only constitute an extra seamy flourish without the hammer of the ending. In Towne’s original screenplay, Jake sees his efforts do some good: Evelyn shoots and kills Cross and gets away with their incestuous offspring while Jake occupies the police. In the version Polanski filmed, which Towne referred to afterward as “the tunnel at the end of the light,” Evelyn, in trying to escape, is shot through the back of the head. This we discover when Jake reaches her car and reveals the gaping exit wound through her eye. Noah Cross then wraps his tentacles around his screaming daughter/granddaughter and carries her off, in what has to be one of the more unregenerate moments in American film history. And what makes it worse is that Evelyn dies not only despite Jake’s best efforts, but because of them: he’s the one who chose this strategy of escape, and he’s the one who threw himself heroically across the arm of the good cop, who was shooting at Evelyn’s tires, which caused the bad cop to take matters into his own hands, and aim higher.

At that moment Chinatown feels like the culmination of a trend noticeable throughout the development of film noir: the notion of the powers that be as increasingly so omnipotent, malevolent, and successfully masked that they turn all of the protagonist’s core virtues into liabilities. And here once again we find ourselves returning to points relevant to discussions of America in its late-capitalist phase. In Chinatown, the criminals are the system; the junior highs and municipal projects are named after them; and standing against them is not only futile but directly harmful. Looking at the body of his lover, Jake can only murmur what we were informed the district attorney advised his men to try to accomplish when working in Chinatown: “As little as possible.” Advice that Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon would never have accepted has now become a lesson his descendant has had to learn the hard way.

Protagonists of the American action genres—the Western, film noir, the war movie, etc.—are all about the meaningful individual act as a means of redemption or self-definition. If that’s taken away, those figures have almost nothing left. In Chinatown, that’s taken away. Perhaps no American movie ever worked with such cruel ingenuity to demonstrate not only the futility of good intentions, but the catastrophic consequences of well-intentioned intervention, when the system is so thoroughly rigged.

The ending has such force because, like Jake, we too never learn; despite all indications, we assume things will at least not collapse so horribly. When you mentioned to most people just a few of the towering problems that the second Bush administration either created or hugely exacerbated—from its Hey, let’s break everything in sight intervention in Iraq to the long-term wreckage of its economic policies to its stupefyingly irresponsible position on global warming—the polite response you received usually ran along the lines of “Well, I’m sure something will work out.” Sure, things look grim now, but there’s no reason to get all Chicken Little about it; after all, professionally trained members of the elite, men of sobriety and experience, were no doubt at work on the problem even as you spoke. Surely not so much damage had been done that some Brent Scowcroft types couldn’t turn this thing around. Like Jake, we want to believe that we’ve seen this movie before and know how it goes. But in Chinatown we’re stunned to discover that our surrogate really is in over his head, because the system has long since evolved into something that’s not looking to address aberrant criminality. Reformers are allowed to operate—up to a point—not because they have powerful allies among the forces for good but because of the system’s sense of its own invulnerability.

But we’d been making such progress. And we’d gotten real dirt on the bad guys. Hadn’t we been about to turn this thing around? Jake’s increasingly decisive sense that he knows what he’s doing, his righteous rage, and his and our understanding that private eyes solve these cases and set things aright—after all, he’s clearly seen The Maltese Falcon, too—combine to make the final scenes’ nihilism all the more devastating.

Given Roman Polanski’s own gothic phantasmagoria of a life—he witnessed as a child the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto and the execution of his parents, and emigrated to the United States only to have his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child butchered by the Manson family—he was probably psychically well-situated to demonstrate to Americans just how deeply romantic a supposedly cynical form like film noir really was. And it’s hard to come up with another American movie that’s delivered such sumptuous and glamorous visuals underpinned with such sordidness and corruption. Or that has exposed such darkness with such gleefulness.

The charitable term for Polanski’s humor is macabre. There are endless visual jokes foreshadowing what’s going to happen to poor Evelyn’s left eye: on a stakeout, we follow a kicked-out left taillight; we view a pair of watches, the left one crushed; everyone’s glasses seem to get their left lenses smashed; and just before they become lovers, Jake is distracted by “something black” in Evelyn’s left eye. A flaw in the iris, she explains. And probably the nastiest joke in a long string of nasty jokes involves an early escape from some bad guys that is staged precisely like Evelyn’s attempt to escape at the end: the bad guys fire at her car as it disappears into the darkness, seemingly to no effect. That first time around, though, as we watch Jake and Evelyn drive away unscathed, Evelyn, after a moment, picks delicately at her left eye, as if to mime, Hmm. There seems to be something in my eye. Could it be: A bullet?

How perverse is the humor? Well, Polanski himself plays the guy who slits open Jake’s nose on camera to warn him off pursuing the case. Polanski was Sharon Tate’s husband. What should we make of the associations that he had to know we’d bring to the image of him slitting people open with a knife?

Is there something funny about naked ruthlessness, and a self-consciousness about the power to generate suffering with impunity? Did you notice how much Donald Rumsfeld enjoyed some of those press conferences in which he scattered absurd double-talk like chicken feed before a befuddled press corps? Have you found yourself wondering why Dick Cheney would have clung so tenaciously to a method of interrogation—torture—that had been so long discredited as a working method of gathering intelligence?

Late in Chinatown, Jake asks Noah Cross, “Why’re you doin’ it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross answers, “The future, Mr. Gittes. The future. Now, where’s the girl? I want the only daughter I’ve got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me long ago.” Jake asks, “Who do you blame for that? Her?” And Cross answers, “I don’t blame myself. See, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

And the obscene and leering overemphasis that Huston puts on his delivery of the final word makes clear that Cross is not only ashamed and attempting to rationalize; he’s also delighted. He’s found himself in a new world, here—a world of near-boundless power over other human beings—and it’s a playground.

There aren’t too many comic visions black enough to encompass that kind of insight, but Polanski’s is one of them.

Another thing we tend to overlook when experiencing Chinatown is what we heard during that county commissioners’ hearing at the very beginning. Cross is not only looking to make millions; he’s looking to make millions building a dam that will not hold; a dam whose identical design has catastrophically failed before. So it’s not just a matter of corruption triumphing; it’s a matter of corruption’s triumph also setting the stage for inevitable public cataclysm. Mike Brown at FEMA is a bad joke and a run-of-the-mill leech until Katrina comes ashore. Once that happens, he moves into the Nero category, and a lot of people die.

All those closet romantics who wish to situate Chinatown safely within the noir tradition that preceded it are fond of reciting to each other what they believe to be the film’s final line: Jake’s assistant’s ministering, and preemptively elegiac, “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.” That line’s famous for a reason. We all recognize the familiar appeal of its squint-eyed tough-guy stoicism. The movie’s actual last lines, though, belong to Jake’s friend the good cop. What he shouts, offscreen, as darkness closes over everybody, is a lot less reassuring, and it’s a lot more fitting, given the nature of this world. It’s what Americans have been hearing for decades now in our Rust Belt, and in our inner cities, and everywhere else that late-model American capitalism has already decided isn’t worth saving. And unless we start paying attention better than we have been, and acting on what we learn, it’s what Americans will be hearing in many more places—probably everywhere, in fact, that there isn’t a walled compound, with a gate—in the future: “Get off the street. Get off the street.

Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels, including The Book of Aron; five story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway—a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of The Story Prize—and editor of the anthology Writers at the Movies. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.