What does Chinatown have in common with such disparate and seemingly dissimilar films like All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and Blow-Out? The answer is that each of those film fits within a category—more of a socially relevant cycle than an actual sub-genre—that has come to be referred to as the 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller.
While the various plots and level of paranoia and focus on conspiracies in these films vary wildly, what really links one to the other is that they were all reactions in one way or another to the era in which they were made. Just as the disillusionment following the deflated emotional crash from the spectacular high of winning World War II produced film noir, so the even equally profound disillusionment in the wake of the string of assassinations in the 1960s, the revelations of the corporate sponsorship of the Vietnam War, the militaristic treatment of dissent by the police, and the Watergate scandal give birth to Chinatown and a host of other films whose mandate essentially came down to question everything, believe nothing and trust no one.
Chinatown is routinely considered the premier example of neo-noir, an attempt to update the conventions of film noir without its most distinctive cinematic convention, those long shadows produced by the black and white cinematography. While Chinatown certainly contains many aspects associated with film noir, its protagonist is significantly less of a sap in the service of its female lead who is significantly more complex than a mere fatale.
The 1940s setting also lends a noirish atmosphere to the film, but when all is said and done, it is a movie deeply rooted in the zeitgeist of 1970s suspicion that the worlds of politics, big business and law enforcement were all secretly conspirators in a grand conspiracy to stick it to anyone not rich enough or corrupt enough to join.
The paranoia in Chinatown is ramped up by the fact that its labyrinthine plot turns on an actual conspiracy to deliver a fresh water supply to the rapidly expanding population of Los Angeles from the hills that surround it through a combination of greedy business interests bribing corrupt politicians all under the protection of an LAPD treated like a private security force.
You might expect that a movie titled Chinatown would feature a healthy number of scenes taking place in that ethnic conclave found in most big cities. In fact, the narrative actually physically moves to the setting at the very end. Chinatown exists as a metaphor in Chinatown. It is a place that good cops never even bother entering because it hosts a culture that is entirely different on every level from the culture they themselves live within. Chinatown is absolutely impenetrable as far as understanding the how things work and getting a grip on the ethical and moral dimension those living there. Meanwhile, trying to enforce the law is a joke because without understanding the culture, you can never even hope to get close to the real power that sits at the top of the power hierarchy where business interests and criminal interests converge.
No, Chinatown is nothing at all like the Los Angeles outside its borders.