Lessons from ‘Chinatown’: Corruption and Immorality
For me, the defining line of Chinatown comes when Jack Nicholson’s private investigator Mr Gittes confronts the villain, a rich and charming but evil and twisted old man, just before the climax of the film. They meet in the Spanish villa of the apparent femme fatale just after dusk. The sky is a deep shade of blue, the type you’d only find in an aquarium after dark with just a hint of the shaded fallen sun in the background. The camera frames the shot so that the crime scene where it all began sits in between them, a calm and serene little pond awkward in the middle of the garden. The old man is not that much taller than the protagonist but he looms large in the shot, casting a long shadow with his cowboy hat disappearing off-screen. Having discovered the old man’s scheme to own almost all of Los Angeles by controlling the water supply, the protagonist simply asks ‘how much are you worth?’, the old man, missing the point says ‘well I don’t know, how much do you want?’. The protagonist persists and asks, ‘why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?’. The old man is shocked by the question and replies with a confidence only reserved for those with big minds and small hearts, ‘the future Mr Gittes. The future’.
"Strip away the questions, the secrecy and the violence, Chinatown simply states that corruption can come in many forms, it can be guarded, obvious or indifferent. In Chinatown there is a difference but not a separation between corruption of the mind and corruption of the soul."
This is the sick beauty of Chinatown, a film that delights in its depiction of immorality, corruption and evil. Despite its penetrating darkness, it might be the most colourful film noir ever made. In Chinatown the marriage of style and substance is a perfect and happy one. The film is beautiful to look at, characterised by wide shots of Los Angeles in the 1930s and defined by the contrast of the lush and the barren which complements the plot’s struggle between good and evil. The film might appear charming at first, but from the first scene, you never shake the feeling that something is deeply wrong. The director builds this incredible sense of dread and curiosity which never dissipates, it just grows stronger and darker. Chinatown is about a complicated labyrinthian conspiracy defined by mystery, cloak and dagger and political malfeasance. But the story Chinatown wants to tell is much simpler. Strip away the questions, the secrecy and the violence, Chinatown simply states that corruption can come in many forms, it can be guarded, obvious or indifferent. In Chinatown there is a difference but not a separation between corruption of the mind and corruption of the soul.
The plot of Chinatown is a lot like the water which defines the events of the film. The sick conspiracy seeps into every scene, as the helpless characters are swept away in a tsunami of intrigue, mystery and darkness. Chinatown begins with the death of its only hero as the story is told through the eyes of a clever, arrogant and seemingly incredulous private investigator Jake Gittes as he is set up to follow the threads of two conspiracies, one political and one personal. It doesn’t take him long to find himself caught in an all-powerful current of ambition, manipulation and darkness as he meets the guarded but beautiful Evelyn Mulwray, the daughter of the city’s titan of business, the old and rich Noah Cross. As he witnesses gallons of water dumped into the sea next to a city in drought, finds sabotaged water-supplies all throughout the country-side and meets aged-care residents who together are the ignorant owners of an entire valley, he begins to put the pieces of this conspiracy together. Gittes determines that the city’s water department is deliberating drying up the land to lower the price on Cross’s orders so that he can buy the land and sell it back to the city for a magnificent profit. But this doesn’t explain Evelyn sneaking off in the middle of the night to comfort a girl who Gittes saw with her husband, the dead hero. With no other choice, Evelyn reveals that the girl is the product of rape and incest, the girl is her sister and her daughter. Just before Evelyn and her daughter can escape Cross and his web of evil, Evelyn is killed by a confused policeman, and Cross clutches his last daughter close, takes her away and slips into the shadows. Gittes just walks away, indifferent.
Chinatown isn’t easy to watch. Like Cross and his cronies, it is always one step ahead of its audience, daring them to hope that the worst is over and that the only corruption is political and financial, not moral. Every time I thought that the mystery had finally been solved and that I thought I knew where the film would end up, I was wrong. The final evil is worse than most could possibly imagine and the ending will leave you feeling both hollow and horrified. The juxtaposition of the glorious Los Angeles skyline, the mighty government buildings and the glow of the ocean with the depravity, the sickness and the corruption of its inhabitants makes a strong point about the simplicity and the banality of evil. Millions of people are having their water stolen from them by their own government and the unofficial father of the city, Noah Cross, is really the devil incarnate. The city’s only hero dies in the first 10 minutes of the film, the victim is punished and the villain rewarded, and the only man with the knowledge and the power to stop it all simply walks away.
"In many ways I think Chinatown defined a whole decade without even realising it. Chinatown was released in 1974 and like the film, the 1970s were plagued by corruption, moral failure and a darkness that defined the whole decade."
And yet, I keep coming back to Chinatown. Forget Thanos from Marvel, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars or the Night King from Game of Thrones, Chinatown’s depiction of evil is honest, real and deeply disturbing. There are no magic powers, no epic battles and no one foils the evil plot and saves the day, in the end an old man simply gets what he wants. Chinatown’s big reveal is that evil is often right in front of us, clear as day and yet completely ignored and that the real villains look exactly like ourselves and most of the time, they win.
Ever since I first watched Chinatown early this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about when it was released. In many ways I think Chinatown defined a whole decade without even realising it. Chinatown was released in 1974 and like the film, the 1970s were plagued by corruption, moral failure and a darkness that defined the whole decade. The political and economic model on which the world rested since the 1940s had collapsed spectacularly as stagflation took hold and unemployment soared. Leaders came and went like weather as elections were held more frequently but became less and less decisive. The Vietnam War still had another year to go, but the public had long ceased to believe that the war was worth fighting for. By 1971 the Pentagon Papers had been released, the Vietnam War was revealed to be built on lies and in 1972 alone, 40,000 American soldiers had died fighting a war that the west would lose just three years later. Just two months after Chinatown was released, the Watergate scandal reached its climax after two years of congressional hearings, a presidential election and a supreme court order when Richard Nixon finally resigned. It’s hard to think of a better real-life example of the kind of corruption and conspiracy seen in Chinatown than Watergate. A sick but clever old man covered-up crimes, bombed innocents and betrayed his people and himself when he was already the most powerful man in the world. At least Noah Cross wasn’t the President of the United States. The 1970s would see four prime ministers in the United Kingdom, three presidents in the United States and three prime ministers in Australia as well as our greatest constitutional crisis. It was more than anything a decade of decay, when the world fell apart only to be built up again in the 1980s. The moral decay depicted in Chinatown seemed to both represent and predict an era compromised by disillusionment, indifference and corruption.
"The state of the world in the 2010s and the early 2020s has more than a couple of things in common with the era of Chinatown. Political instability, check. Economic uncertainty, check. Civil unrest, double check."
The state of the world in the 2010s and the early 2020s has more than a couple of things in common with the era of Chinatown. Political instability, check. Economic uncertainty, check. Civil unrest, double check. The defining events of the last 13 years since the Global Financial Crisis have been characterised by Chinatown’s version of corruption, an ugly and foul blend of political malfeasance and moral turpitude. For me, the lasting lesson of Chinatown is that material corruption, whether it be for money or power, is usually accompanied by the moral corruption of the individuals involved. Where one finds a scheme to rob a bank, to rig an election or to frame someone for a crime they didn’t commit, they will find acts of personal horror and individual cruelty beyond their wildest imagination. Donald Trump tried to pay Ukraine to investigate his political opponents and then sent an angry, violent and deranged mob to the United States Capitol when a failed re-election bid damaged his ego. The Australian government is planning to mandate a flat-tax which will see someone on $40,000 a year pay the same rate as someone on $200,000 a year. After the revelations of Brittany Higgins and others, the same government was more interested in holding onto power than apologising and atoning for its failures. Corruption appears to cut both ways, compromising both hearts and minds alike.
Chinatown does paint a fascinating portrait of humanity and the times we live in, even if it’s not a pretty one. The dual corruption of Chinatown came to reflect the decade of its release and its lessons are still just as relevant today. Of all the characters, Cross is who I keep thinking about. What do you think he meant when he talked about wanting the future? Does he want it for himself? Or has he convinced himself that his corruption and his conspiracies are justified? Everything about his character suggests he has no problem with his behaviour. He is a man completely at peace with himself. Maybe his confidence comes from the fact that he is oblivious to his own corruption and immorality. He appears to believe that he is good. Maybe this is Chinatown’s depiction of the real power of immorality, it makes the corrupt believe that they are righteous and just. Just after Cross has shamelessly revealed his plan to us, Gittes asks debasingly if he blames Evelyn for what he did to her. Cross replies ‘I don’t blame myself. You see Mr Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place they are capable of anything.’ I hope that the times prove this to be false.
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