CineFile – Chinatown

Some great films enter the culture, above and beyond their artistry, by striking emblematic gold. In an image, a scene, a line, they make an essential statement that the audience loves both for its insight and its expression. Roman Polanski‘s Chinatown has at least two of those emblematic expressions. One is found in Faye Dunaway‘s Evelyn offering up the exploding riddle of her relationship to Katherine, always reenacted with the mimic’s head flapping back and forth to conjure the face slaps from Jack Nicholson‘s Jake Gittes as he demands the truth.

“She’s my daughter!…She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!My sister, my daughter…She’s my sister and my daughter.”

The other lasting contribution to the general culture is the title itself, now a single word expression of all that is fatalistic and dark in life, beyond our hopeful striving to conquer.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

An interesting revelation, if one studies the screenplay, is how Polanski combined the two strains in the final scene. It is interesting, too, to note how the darkest, most disturbing element of the ending is not in the shooting script. Polanski famously rewrote screenwriter Robert Towne‘s original “happy” ending, in which Gittes, Evelyn, and Katherine get away. But even Polanski’s rewrite did not contain the creepiest element. Here is the ending.

Escobar continues to move toward her. Gittes grabs him.

		(to Evelyn)
	Now take off.

Evelyn gets in the car. She starts it. Gittes lets
Escobar go.

	I'll just have her followed --
	she's not going anywhere --

There's a single GUNSHOT. Both men look surprised. Down
the block a uniformed officer has fired, standing beside
his double-parked car. Duffy's sedan slows to a stop in
the middle of the street. It jerks a couple of times,
still in gear, then comes to a halt.

Gittes rushes to the car. He opens it. Evelyn falls out,
inert. Blood is pouring from her right eye.


He holds onto Evelyn as Escobar and others hurry up.
Cross himself elbows through.

	Where is he? I'll kill him, I'll
	kill the son of a bitch --

Several officers contain Gittes.

		 to Escobar)
	Who is he, get his name? I'll kill
	him --

		(badly shaken)
	Take it easy, take it easy, it was
	an accident --

	An accident --

Gittes looks down. What he sees horrifies him. Cross is
on the ground, holding Evelyn's body, crying.

	Get him away from her. He's
	responsible for everything. Get
	him away from her!

	Jake -- you're very disturbed.
	You're crazy. That's her father.

Walsh and Duffy elbow through the crowd.

		 to them)
	You wanna do your partner the
	biggest favor of his life? Take
	him home. Just get him the hell
	out of here!

Duffy bear hugs the protesting Gittes, along with Walsh,
literally dragging him away from the scene, with Gittes
trying to shake free. Through the crowd noises, Walsh can
be heard saying, "Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown."


Now here is the summary of the ending from Wikipedia:

Noah Cross approaches Katherine, explaining that he is her “grandfather.” Evelyn backs him off with a small pistol, and when he is undeterred, she shoots him in the arm. As Evelyn speeds away with Katherine, the police open fire, killing Evelyn; her body falls onto the car horn, its blare joined by Katherine’s blood-curdling scream. Cross clutches Katherine and takes her away, while Gittes’s associates hold him back from attacking Escobar. One of them urges, “Forget it, Jake. it’s Chinatown.”

There are actually several differences, but the greatest of all is this: “Cross clutches Katherine and takes her away….”

In fact, in John Huston‘s slithering portrayal of Cross, he wraps his arms around Katherine like an octopus, even covering her face, as if to protect her from the gruesome sight of Evelyn’s dead body, but also to shut her up, pulling her from the car and drawing her away back into the shadows, as if to feed on her. It is Evelyn’s death, despite all Gittes’ efforts, that is the fatalism. It is Cross’s subterranean, predatory strike that is the darkness.

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