The Awful Truth
Tom J. Carlisle on Chinatown
“Everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed; everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost”
Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. After what he’s seen, don’t you think he wants to? But as we watch Jake Gittes, propped up on both sides by his associates, his limp body basically carried down the street, shrinking until he is obscured in the darkening city streets, we know that he won’t. Like the film noir detective he is supposed to be, Jake went looking for what he thought he wanted to know: the truth, the facts. And now that he knows, he has finally learned the most important thing of all, the lesson of Oedipus. The wrong people get murdered, the wrong people get fucked, and you are as responsible as anyone. Better to just gouge out your eyes so as to never have to see anything as horrible as the truth again. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.
Up until this last shot, Chinatown is more or less faithful to its film noir roots. Sure, there are revisionist elements. Made in 1974, it is filmed in bright sunlit color, and Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes lends a certain countercultural cache to the hardboiled private-dick persona that had already been mercilessly parodied a year earlier by Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. And yes, the fact that the murder mystery at the forefront has more or less given way to a deep corruption involving not gambling and liquor and juicy life insurance payouts but water rights in Los Angeles and, worse, incest speaks to a darker, more omnivorous political abuse of power that was appropriate to the dark national hangover of the Watergate years. But Chinatown is a period piece, set in the 1930s, and like the classical noir cinema, it concerns itself with a search for the truth—both literal and existential—some kind of beacon of reality in a chiaroscuro world of misinformation and confusion. The audience is conditioned to expect that although the detective hero will pay a great personal price, he will find this real and absolute truth, and, through this knowledge, justice, however cruel, will prevail. Chinatown seems to be heading in that direction, dutifully, until that last, terrible, beautiful shot, where everything quickly and finally unravels.
You can’t really talk about the last shot in Chinatown without discussing the one directly before—in many ways they are actually one single shot broken only by a particularly strange cut. In the penultimate shot we see Jake and a group of L.A. police detectives running up to a car whose horn is blaring in a long wail. When they get to the car we find Evelyn Cross (Faye Dunaway), the femme fatale who has somehow ended up as an innocent fatality, her head slumped against the steering wheel, her eye blown out; Jake looks on as the daughter she tried to protect is led away by the one man who is most dangerous to her, Evelyn’s father and former water czar Noah Cross (John Huston). Formerly cocksure and confident, full of swagger and the ready reply, Jake now just stares at the scene with mute incomprehension. Then he says, quietly, “As little as possible.” It is the same line he used to describe to Evelyn what he had done when long ago he was a police detective in Chinatown. It is also what he should have done up to this point—he knows his own actions led to Evelyn’s death. We can see it in his face. The camera sits on him for a beat and then, unexpectedly, there is a cut just before the camera pans quickly from the exact same shot of Jake to the police detective in charge of the case.
This cut is jarring and disorienting, a rupture that mimics Jake’s crushing epiphany. He tried to bring corruption to light, even taking the murderer directly to the police, and instead of righteous vindication for the wounded parties, this action led to the worst possible outcome. He forgot that the killer is a powerful man and therefore absolute and untouchable—the truth can only hurt those who are its victims; those who victimize are beyond its reach. When the camera lands on the police detective, Escobar, he asks Jake to repeat himself. For the first time in the film Jake does not have an answer. He simply stares, unfocused. It’s here that Chinatown departs drastically from the film noir which inspired it.
The shot holds for a moment in a medium close up of Jake and Escobar, and Nicholson seethes mute agony through a face that seems to melt into itself, a quiet horror that registers nothing but the terrible facts. The only flicker is one of disgust, and possible self loathing, when Escobar tells Jake that he is doing him a favor by letting him leave. As he being led away, he turns to see Evelyn’s body for the last time, but his associates let him know, with gentle force and some hopeful advice, that there is no point in that. Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown. The camera follows their progress, bumping through the crush of Chinese onlookers pushing into the frame. There is a feeling of claustrophobia, the camera shifting as though handheld, and we see only Jake’s fedora slowly receding above the crowd, before he’s gone.
Yet, no, not quite. Once you have learned the truth of this world, the real truth, there is only one place left to go, and we are here to see Jake through. The camera starts to glide upward in a slow crane shot until we can see Jake and his pallbearers once more, small figures getting smaller. Police cars barrel past them, lights and sirens blazing, and they don’t even flinch. The camera keeps going up and Jake keeps getting further away until completely obscured by obliterating darkness. Everybody knows that no one gets to ride off easily into the sunset.