The Great Villain Blogathon: CHINATOWN (1974)

Private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) confronts uber-villain Noah Cross (John Huston) in CHINATOWN (1974) -- image source: IMDb

Private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) confronts uber-villain Noah Cross (John Huston) in CHINATOWN (1974) — image source: IMDb

Roman Polanski’s classic noir film CHINATOWN (1974), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, has a classic villain who is more than worthy to be featured in this year’s Great Villain Blogathon, which is currently in progress. Polanski’s bad guy is Noah Cross, who is played by John Huston.

Cross is an L.A. business tycoon who is the mastermind of a plot to swindle the farmers in the valley north of L.A. out of their water supply. His unwitting partner in this scheme is Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of the city’s water and power department and husband of Cross’s daughter, Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway). J. J. Gittes (Nicholson) is the crude but gritty private detective whom Mrs. Mulwray hires to investigate her husband for marital infidelity.

The situation gets complicated when Mulwray is found dead after Gittes’s successful investigation embroils Mulwray in a public scandal. Things become even more twisted when Gittes finds out that an impersonator, not the real Mrs. Mulwray, hired him to catch Mulwray with his lover. Gittes begins to suspect that Mulwray’s death was due to murder, not suicide. His pursuit of his suspicions leads him inexorably (although at first blindly) towards a confrontation with Cross.

I have always thought it interesting that L.A.’s Chinatown is more of an unseen metaphor than a visible reality in this film. Although the climactic action of its third act takes place in Chinatown itself, these final scenes show the physical embodiment of the lawless, chaotic world that hides behind the facade of moneyed respectability that Cross and Evelyn affect. When Gittes and his former police colleagues (especially Lt. Escobar, played by Perry Lopez) refer to Chinatown in earlier scenes, they speak of it as a place from which they are proud to have escaped and a type of hell that they are anxious to avoid at all costs in the future.

Unfortunately for them, Chinatown is unavoidable, as they swim in it unawares. In this film, Chinatown is not the place where Chinese immigrants live in Los Angeles. Instead, it is a world where powerful, greedy men like Noah Cross wield their power to do as they please to others, even those whom they claim to love.

Unlike in some other crime movies, Noah Cross as villain maintains a low profile in CHINATOWN, at least for the first half of the story. Nevertheless, he is the puppetmaster, pulling strings behind the scenes that control everything that is happening, although Gittes (and, by extension, the viewer) does not realize this at first.

By contrast, Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway) knows her father’s secrets, although she is unwilling to give Gittes much information about them. Due to a mixture of pride, fear, and shame (with perhaps a dollop of her father’s psychopathy mixed in), she draws Gittes deeper into her world (even into her bed) without warning him of the dangers that await him. The earthy, womanizing Gittes recklessly plunges ahead anyway, perhaps out of his own greed and vanity.

Although Gittes gets to the bottom of the matter, he is no match for Cross. For all his foibles, Gittes actually has some principles by which he lives. Cross has no such scruples. His attitude is best summed up by this line:

Most people never face the fact that at the right time, in the right place, they’re capable of anything.

To reveal just what Cross has been and is capable of would be to spoil the film for those who have not seen it. Anyone who is not familiar with CHINATOWN should put it high on his/her watchlist. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix.