Generally speaking there are certain constants one can expect form a noir film. Typically a noir film has a plot which depicts the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism, and with emphasis on the brutal, unhealthy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. In a film like Chinatown (1974), a modern-day film noirthriller, the criteria of the dark side of society is fulfilled by Jake’s investigation of the deceiving world of high crime. Through hard-boiled character of Jake Gittes the audience is shown the facade that hides what is sinister and the corrupt in bleak world of noir. Nevertheless this dark element in the film contributes to a greater metaphoric symbol of noir’s social comment about the malaises of society. Aside form the unsettling mood of alienation, disillusionment, disenchantment, and pessimism in the world of Chinatown.
It shares great likeness with other classic noir films through its characters, particularly with its anti-hero, Jake Gittes and the enigmatic heroine Evelyn Mulray. In film noir, men serve the purpose of the oedipal struggle between the son and individual against forces outside the realm of his control. The character of Jake reluctantly takes on this struggle as the leading male protagonist. Throughout the film Jake’s investigation of the story, he uncovers secrets under many layers of coverups, and deception. In unraveling complicated facts, he is deliberately audacious and over confident in deriving explanations for the deeply flowing corruption he unearths. Moreover this is his undoing, compromising his approach to the case he has in turn offset the balance between the good and the evil in the noir scenario, by he himself being apart of the corrupt and indifferent in the noir world.
Jake’s flaws are meant to coincide with the dark world of the noir. He is the anti-hero with a tarnished past history. Although the film does not elaborate on the details about the tragedy that occurred in his past, it is clear that Jake had been affected deeply and it was the result of the whole attitude of indifference about every thing in Chinatown at the time. In Chinatown no one ever cared or did anything. As a result, Jake is more keen to corruption and the power of money than to the more immediately detrimental corruption of morals by Noah to his daughter Evelyn.
Despite Jake’s failed attempt to uncover the mystery by himself, he is still given the chance to help right the wrongs of the noir world by helping the victimized Evelyn and her daughter Katherine escape the dark influence of the villainous father Noah. To Jake’s dismay the child is not a vision of pureness, but an inbred offspring of immorality and lies. Eventually Jake reasoned that this was an opportunity for a new beginning, at least for those most affected by this world. Everyone has an afflicted past and a dark secret. This was his chance to bury the darkness for both himself and the child.
But in the end, he’s unable to break free from the constraints of money and power. Degradation prevails and Jake’s left to think about how his fate is again shut down by these evil forces. His masculine instincts to separate good from evil – to save the good and punish the evil – has failed him in the metaphoric “real” world of Chinatown by the film’s climax. Retrospectively, Gittes who is the protagonist of a modern-noir film is an innovation on the classical male protagonist. He unlike other noir heros fails to defeat the dark side of the noir world, instead he loses his femme fatale brings tragedy to his good woman. Conversely women in film noir serve to express skepticism toward the family and the values that it supports.
With few exceptions, noir films divide women into two categories: the femme fatale, an independent, ambitious woman who feels confined within a marriage or a closed male-female relationship and attempts to break free, usually with violent results; the nurturing woman, who is often depicted as dull, featureless, and, in the end, unattainable. Character of Evelyn is one such variation on the female in film noir. She effectively starts out on the femme fatale side of the spectrum and ended up in the role of the good woman at the end of the film. In stark contrast to the visual and narrative representation of the family home is that of the femme fatale herself. An example of this being Evelyn at the beginning of the film. In her first encounter with Jake, she is able to govern her relationship with Jake. Moreover in the role of the femme fatale she exudes a unique sexuality, which she uses to her advantage to define herself and manipulate Jake in order to retain her independence from an oppressive patriarchal relationship.
Her body, her actions, her words, and her ability to hold the camera’s gaze create a highly charged sexual image that defies attempts by the men in her life and by the film itself to control her or return her to her “proper role” as a woman. In fact Evelyn fools Jake into thinking that she is a classic femme fatale who resorts to murder to free herself from an unbearable relationship with a man who would try to possess and abuse her, as if she were a piece of property or a pet. Furthermore a classic femme fatale usually manipulates her man into murdering her oppressor. Evelyn however Evelyn had no such wish for the retribution of her suffering caused by Noah. Film noir’s subversive view of family life and women’s accepted role in society extends to its portrayal of the “good” or “normal” woman.
The good woman embraces her traditional “place” in the family, but she is out of place in film noir. Such was the case with Evelyn when Jake coerced her into revealing the true nature of her relationship with the Katherine mystery girl. When she finally confesses that Katherine was in fact her daughter who was inbred, her true role as the good woman was finally exposed to Jake. As the good woman she offers the hero a chance to escape from the sexy, destructive femme fatale and the dangerous noir world. Nonetheless the good woman often proves to be a mirage that the hero cannot reach.
Jake as a result of finding out the truth about Evelyn’s tragic circumstance find his affair with the femme fatale eclipsed by Evelyn’s transition to the good woman now accepting her role as the traditional motherly figure. The good woman is by no means the prescription for proper female behavior. However the lack of excitement offered by the “safe woman” is clearly contrasted with the sensual, passionate appeal of the other, with whom the detective’s destruction seemed inevitable. In the role of the good woman she remains passive, nurturing, and nonthreatening. Ultimately, the world of the good woman and “normal” family values contrasts sharply with the dominant world of film noir in both visual style and narrative content, as if the cultural ideal of family life is a mere fantasy for the noir characters. In film noir, the American dream is indeed a dream.
Chinatown unlike many of its precursors is a modern film noir. It earns its distinction from the other noir movies because it found room to innovate while still using past noirfilms as its template. Within the familiar backdrop of the dirty and corrupt noir world, the film brilliantly avoids cliches through the uses of Jake Gittes the anti-hero and Evelyn Mulray, who is best described as a hybrid of the femme fatal and the good woman. Even as she is killed of while trying to flee the noir world to become a good woman in the final reel, she lingers in the audience’s imagination as a sexually exciting, sensual being who remained defiant to the bitter end against those who had tried to control her.