Written by Robert Towne
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
The motif of voyeurism, inherent both to the film noir tradition and to the protagonist’s profession as a private investigator of extramarital episodes, is immediately established in Chinatown’s first shot, in which a wide-angle close-up of black and white snapshots of an affair slowly zooms out to reveal Jake Gittes’ office. Later, we see images from Jake’s point of view through his “binoculars”, and at another point images are reflected in his camera lens. Everything we see feels both reflected and distorted by Jake’s psyche, although Polanski “cheats” at some points by cleverly integrating information that Gittes is not privy to. The fact that his investigation into an ostensible affair turns into a crime investigation that is really a voyeuristic exposition of Mrs. Mulray’s sexual history should come as no shock to feminist film critics like Laura Mulvey, who would likely view the iconic slapping scene as a physical manifestation of the sadistic impulse driving Jake’s voyeurism all along. As Mrs. Mulray herself asks, quite shrewdly, “Is this business or an obsession with you?”.
Another important motif of the film is that of the facade, and the pervasiveness of the sunny Californian lawns and grand entranceways could not possibly be motivated solely by the necessities of the plot. They are lit with such intensity that shadows vanish completely, and the wide-angle lens gives these images a surreal crispness and flatness, showing that the facades are as superficial as they are vividly rendered and detailed. In contrast, many of the interior scenes are darkly lit, even when they occur during the day, and are more likely to use a long lens to shorten the depth of field and increase the menace of blurred shapes in the distance. Even the score displays a contrast between the lush romantic harp sounds, and a sparsely used but highly memorable piano riff, seemingly atonal, highly rhythmic, and so unconstrained by its meter that it evokes the very danger and unpredictability of “Chinatown” itself.
Of course, the motif of voyeurism and that of the facade are intricately linked metaphors that give meaning to film noir as a genre tradition and to the character of Mrs. Mulray, who is both a compelling female character and a representation of the story’s themes. While that Polanski’s use of women to embody those themes is embedded in a misogynist tradition that extends through much of film history, I Chinatown must ultimately be taken as a representation of its own unique reality. What makes voyeurism such a popular and compelling theme in film is that it is integral to the medium itself, and every film either acknowledges, ignores, or seeks to destroy the audience’s identification with the protagonist’s gaze . That women are most often the objects of the gaze is a symptom of societal norms, but the voyeuristic themes themselves exist independently of whatever gender conventions the filmmaker adheres to. Those recurring themes, inherent to the medium of film but further underscored in Polanski’s body of work through his unique sense of humor, that earn Polanski the highly prestigious honor of being my favorite 70’s film director.