A look at obstacles and motivations in the Chinatown screenplay
This is one of several analysis pieces done as part of my MFA work. I thought it might be of some worth to anyone interested in writing, movies, mysteries and things in that vein.
Chinatown’s hero, Jake Gittes, notes in the Robert Towne screenplay that he is a businessman. It is that primary view of himself that draws him deeper and deeper into the complex plot and dangerous situations, and it affects the way he deals with the obstacles or stones that come his way.
For most of his journey, obstacles occur in the form of deception, bureaucracy and a few violent physical confrontations, yet almost every obstacle is eventually transformed into an impetus that propels the protagonist further toward truth if not victory, for in the end the last obstacle is insurmountable.
The Opening Scene
When the screenplay reader meets him, Jake is in the midst of an adultery case that his spiritual predecessors such as Philip Marlowe or even the more pragmatic Sam Spade might not have touched, and, as it plays out, a hint of Jake’s cynicism is revealed. Only the rich, he tells his blue-collar client who is contemplating a crime of passion, can get away with murder. It is a line not included in the film, yet it reverberates thematically through the entire story.
Since adultery cases are Jake’s specialty, he is chosen to unwittingly manipulate water department engineer Hollis Mulwray into cooperation with a plan to re-route water to the San Fernando Valley for financial gain. Embarking on what he thinks is just another adultery case, Jake begins trailing what he believes to be a straying spouse. In the process of this surveillance, Jake observes the first elements of the plot’s core conspiracy.
When Jake discovers his client to be an impostor, he is professionally embarrassed and is introduced to the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray. Initially incensed that he has pursued her husband, she soon becomes Jake’s new client and pushes him further into his examination of the conspiracy once her husband is murdered. The death robs Jake of information Mulwray might have provided, but serves up a reason for him to continue.
The Nose Scene
Inevitable physical confrontation comes soon after. Jake endures a water diversion that’s part of the conspiracy, then is confronted by a pair of thugs operating on behalf of the corrupt water department. They attempt to warn him off with the cutting of his nostril, but the moment is another that fails to push him away. Instead the confrontation confirms the water department’s impropriety and continues to embolden and drive Jake forward as he seeks not just professional exoneration but also a businessman’s payday, bragging he will identify the key players and sue them.
As Jake unravels the public works conspiracy, traversing a variety of obstacles using guile or tricks of his trade, he is pushed even deeper into the story’s real and tragic domestic situation and the encounter with the true villain, Julian Cross. (The character is named Noah on screen.)
Just as his false client deceived him, Jake learns Evelyn has concealed the truth about her daughter born of incest, whom she is attempting to guard from her Cross, her father. When he finally learns the truth, Jake is driven to help her.
At odds with the police
He is put at odds with the police and his former friend as he attempts to assist Evelyn and her daughter escape, creating a ticking clock situation as the story moves toward its conclusion, even as Jake identifies Cross as Mulwray’s killer and the man behind the water department conspiracy, the spot a mystery normally might end and where a degree of concluding satisfaction in the story is found. At least answers are available.
Inadvertently and ironically, Jake—when his motivation ceases to be about only business and returns to a lost idealism—sends Evelyn to her doom. He is repeating a similar incident that occurred when he tried helping someone while working as an investigator in Chinatown. Cross, who is wealthy enough to get away with murder, gets the daughter/granddaughter while the police who are owned by Cross push Jake away.
Jake’s operatives remind him they’re in Chinatown, symbolically the place where the authorities look the other way, where he failed before, and like Chinatown the universe is a place where corruption is so interwoven it cannot be conquered. It’s a truth established in the opening pages. Since the final obstacle in his path cannot be changed or conquered, in the end Jake can only walk way.