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  • The Chinatown Syndrome
  • Phillip Novak

Much has already been written about Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). It was well reviewed by the popular press at the time of its release, and it quickly generated a series of more sustained considerations in journals that occupy a border between popular and academic publications. Recently it has been the subject of several substantial academic readings and a BFI monograph. The effect of this ongoing critical engagement with the movie has been—as one would hope and expect—that much of the richness of the text has been teased out and a few central interpretive concerns have been more or less settled.

Two of these settled issues have to do with our understanding of the lead characters. While some disagreement remains about whether Jake Gittes's problem is naïveté or world-weariness, a solid consensus has formed at this point that Jake has a problem, or is one, that he has flaws the film wants us to see: despite the subjective focus, with the action being presented almost exclusively through Jake's perspective, we retain a critical distance. As Vernon Shetley succinctly puts it, "[I]f the film confines us to Jake's point of view, it constantly reminds us of the limitations of that viewpoint."1 Over the course of years since the film's release, Jake has been described, variously, as "inept" and "tragically impotent,"2 as "hot-headed, venal, crude," and "bumptious,"3 as a "fastidious showoff" and "braggart" with a "nervous, unsteady self image."4

As for Evelyn Mulwray, initially there was some sense, particularly in contemporary reviews, that she simply reprises the role of the femme fatale. For example, in a discussion of film noir for Film Comment, Richard T. Jameson describes her as an "incarnation of the eminently untrustworthy, irresistibly alluring film noir female."5 More recently, James Maxfield, questioning her "sexual morality," insists upon her essential unknowability.6 But the sort of skepticism voiced here concerning Evelyn never really rises above a murmur; and she's now largely seen for what she is, a not uncomplicated, but surely sympathetic, victim—first of her father, then of Jake, and ultimately of patriarchy.

Most critics also recognize that Polanski's film works hard to draw connections between Evelyn and Chinatown.7 Diegetically, this association primarily [End Page 255] comes in the form of a homology that Jake constructs between the two at the level of the symbolic. Extra-diegetically, the connection between Evelyn and China-town gets established primarily by the way the film enhances and emphasizes the vaguely Asian cast to Faye Dunaway's looks, and secondarily by means of pointed juxtapositions. Pretty regularly, that is, when Evelyn is in frame, so too is one (or more) of her Chinese servants: she is effectively surrounded by a ghostlike Asian presence.8 And she enters the film in the context of its first reference to matters Chinese, Jake's continuation and conclusion of the barber's joke about a guy who decides to "screw like a Chinaman."

The commentary on Jake as problematic—and this holds true as well for the discussion of Evelyn as better than she appears—is for the most part designed as evidence to support the claim that Chinatown functions as an assault on the private-eye film. The genre revisionism is either taken at face value or presented as a sign of the cynical times—a reflection of a disillusioned, post-Vietnam-War, post-Watergate-scandal American sensibility. In one of the handful of analyses of Chinatown published a year or two after its release, R. Barton Palmer makes this point most directly. He explains the film's popularity, with the general public and the critics alike, by locating it "in the deep distrust of the problem solving abilities of reason and logic which is the legacy of the painful and mysterious failure in Vietnam and our frustrating incapacity to deal with social problems at home . . . a distrust which has been further intensified by the pervasive corruption of Watergate, an episode whose evils could be catalogued but whose ultimate causes could scarcely be identified." Gittes, Palmer goes on to argue, "exemplifies our doubts...


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