These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community.
We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own.
Written by Timothy Sexton
"Listen, pal. I make an honest living. People only come to me when they're in a desperate situation. I help 'em out. I don't kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do."
The story of Chinatown is about corruption on a massive scale and the ability of those in power to take advantage of those who are desperate to maintain and expand that power. With power comes respectability even when the power to do things is corrupted and abused, there is still a tendency for those people to maintain their respect for certain institutions whereas even when a private detective working close to the smarmy side of the business does things to actually help people, he is still walking uphill to gain respect. Gittes makes this distinctly unfair aspect of economics clear early on and his mandate becomes a driving thematic concern.
"You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.”
Not long after a sinister Peter Lorre-esque little hood (played by the film’s director, Roman Polanski) directs these words to Jake Gittes, he inserts the blade of his knife into Jake’s nostril and then pulls it out rather than down, thus forcing not only a torrent of blood from the nose but also forcing Jake to become perhaps the only lead character in a major Hollywood movie to wear a bandage over his nose for a significant chunk of the film. The quote also has significant thematic importance because it situates Jake’s integrity within his job of sticking his nose into places where it doesn’t belong. The physical injury he receives in this case foreshadows that much deeper and tragic psychic injury he will receive later as a result of being a nosy fellow.
"Somebody's been dumping thousands of tons of water from the city's reservoirs and we're supposed to be in the middle of a drought. He found out about it and he was killed."
The case that Jake has been hired to investigate has led to the discovery that the husband of his client has been murdered. In a typical film noir, this murder would be the crime that drives the entirety of the narrative and noir’s persistent theme about the search for meaning in a seemingly random universe. The universe is Chinatown is not random, but only seems that way when you aren’t in the know as to mysterious forces pulling all the strings. The real crime at the center of the film that drives the narrative is that weirdly unexplained surplus of water in the midst of a drought.
EVELYN: “She’s my daughter.” [Gittes slaps Evelyn.] GITTES: “I said I want the truth!” EVELYN: “She’s my sister. . . .” [slap] EVELYN: “She’s my daughter. . . .” [slap] EVELYN: “My sister, my daughter.” [More slaps.] GITTES: “I said I want the truth!” EVELYN: “She’s my sister AND my daughter!”
Just when Jake believes he’s got everything figured out and is near the truth sitting at the core of his unexpectedly complex investigation, he must confront the realization that the depths of evil to which he has already been exposed is still not anywhere near the bottom of the bleak pit of despair he finds himself swirling down. Jake has all along suspect that Evelyn Mulwray has been less than completely honest. In this key exchange, Jake learns the sordid truth that Evelyn has spent her entire adult life trying both to hide and correct: the young woman that Jake the audience has believed to be Evelyn’s sister is actually both her sister and her daughter as the result of an incestuous assault upon her by her father, Noah Cross, who is the embodiment of that powerful and respectable man who deserves neither power nor respect.
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Walsh is an associated of Jake Gittes and he gets the line in the final scene of the film that sums up everything that the movie is about. After watching the police shoot and kill Evelyn and then hand the offspring of her incestuous relationship with her father back into that same father’s hands, Jake is forced to admit that he simply is not capable of comprehending the level of pure evil lying at the center of the case he is investigating. Walsh, recognizing the incomprehension, explains it by way of metaphor. And, indeed, Chinatown as a section of the city is never presented as anything more than a metaphor in Chinatown. It is a section of the city where the police know better than to try to enforce the law because the mysteries of its own laws, customs and traditions can never be fully comprehended by outsiders. Better to leave it alone and let things take care of themselves than to get caught up in its thoroughly inscrutable rules of the game.
This quote was ranked the 74th best American movie quote of the first 100 years of filmmaking by the American Film Institute.
Update this section!
You can help us out by revising, improving and updating