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LIFE’S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI – Chapter 4: Chinatown: Frames and Lenses

LIFE'S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI - Chapter 4: Chinatown: Frames and Lenses

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We are counting down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life’s Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. Chapter 4 of the series is a video essay by contributor Jim Emerson called Chinatown: Frames and Lenses. You can view Chapter 1 of this series, Polanski’s God, here. You can view Chapter 2 of this series, Spaces, here. You can view Chapter 3 of the series, Uniting The Fragments: Cul-de-Sac, here.]

By Jim Emerson
Press Play Contributor

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a Panavision color film noir — a ghost story, really — about flawed vision and the inescapable resurgence of the past, made in 1974 and set in 1937. Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he knows what’s going on, but as Noah Cross (John Huston) tells him, “Believe me, you don’t.” We see what Jake sees, and it’s invariably filtered or blocked — viewed from a distance through binoculars, or from outside through a door or window that obscures a more complete perspective. Photographs — snippets of time recorded on film, one of the tools of the detective trade — are potentially misleading because they don’t — can’t — capture what’s going on outside of the frame, beyond the moment.

This video montage is a hymn of praise to a film that had a profound effect on me when I first saw it as a 16-year-old in 1974, and that I’ve lived with, haunted, ever since. It’s also an unabashed love poem to the desperate, damaged and determined Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

Like close-up,” which I did in 2007, it’s a free-associative critical essay/dream sequence, based on themes and images (and sound and music) from the movie. Although, like a lot of creative pursuits, the process of assembling it (from pieces of film that were already floating around in my head) was largely unconscious, I now (at least in retrospect) think I understand why each fragment is where it is.

So, I thought I’d turn around and look back at Chinatown through the lens (or frame or door or window, if you will) of my video essay, using it as a way of translating the film’s images into critical prose. Because, in Chinatown, every image is loaded with meanings, associations, resonances. If you’re familiar with the film, you’ll immediately see that this reflection on Chinatown isn’t structured chronologically. Scenes, themes, moments and images keep circling back in fragments… not unlike they do in the film, but in a more condensed and less linear form…
[Anything you read from this point on may be held against you if you haven’t already seen Chinatown. And if you haven’t already seen Chinatown you have no business seeing any other movie until you do.]

It begins with the eyeglasses, one lens cracked, half the vision splintered. It is the solution to the mystery of all the relationships in the film, but not the solution Jake thinks it is when he retrieves this pair from a watery grave and shows them to Mrs. Mulwray. You see, her late husband Hollis didn’t wear bifocals…
A photo comes up out of the water (or developing solution). The wire-framed glasses in the first shot belong to one of the two men in the second.

Dissolve to another 8 x 10 glossy surveillance photograph taken by Gittes or one of his associates: a man and a woman rutting in the bushes. It’s the first shot of Chinatown, an image of adultery — Mr. Gittes’ métier. Again, a hand flips from one image to the next, creating a manual, frame-by-frame movie. (Hence the sound of the movie projector.)

Dissolve to more black-and-white 8 x 10s, more flipping from one picture to the next. These are the images Gittes himself took at Echo Park, of “the girl” with whom Mr. Mulwray, Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was supposedly having an affair. We are at the apartment of Ida Sessions (Diane Lane), the woman who, at the beginning of the picture, poses as Mrs. Mulwray and hires Jake to investigate her husband’s infidelity. By now, Ida Sessions is known to have been an impostor. And she lies dead on the kitchen floor, in a pool of melted ice cream, among her scattered groceries.

Back to Echo Park and Gittes taking these previous photos from a rented rowboat. As Gittes points his camera… reverse angle to him lowering another set of lenses, binoculars, at a scene near a damp riverbed (“water again…”) during a Southern California drought. Dissolve to a close up of Gittes, again with a camera, spying from a rooftop. Mr. Mulwray and “the girl” are reflected in the lens. They kiss.

Cut to headline in the Los Angeles Post-Record: “Department of Water and Power Blows Fuse.” Underneath it is Gittes’ photograph of the furtive couple, cropped in the shape of a heart. Gittes believes he’s solved the case of Mr. Mulwray’s adultery. He hasn’t. A photo can freeze-frame a scene, but it doesn’t reveal its meaning.

Another frame within a frame: In a circular rear-view mirror we see a man get out of a car. It’s Mr. Mulwray, near some cliffs above the sea. The mirror belongs to Gittes, who has been tailing him.

Gittes approaches the lit, ground-floor windows of a house at night, partly screened by loosely woven blinds. He sees Mrs. Mulwray and her butler Kahn (James Howe) with a newspaper. At one point, Mrs. Mulwray’s face is seen through a ring from the curtain drawstrings. Another fragmented image, another frame, like through a gun sight. Gittes can’t hear what they’re saying, but when Mrs. Mulwray goes into another room, “the girl” is there on a bed, obviously distressed. Again, Gittes thinks he apprehends what he sees: Mrs. Mulwray has kidnapped her husband’s “girlfriend” and is drugging her, holding her hostage against her will. (At this point in the video essay soundtrack, there are two or maybe three pieces of Jerry Goldsmith’s music intermixed on separate tracks.)

A hand turns the knob of a shattered glass door and it slowly swings open. This is Gittes, arriving at Ida Sessions’ place. Dissolve to another door swinging open, with Gittes looking through the opening. It’s Ida, as “Mrs. Mulwray,” striking a wronged woman/femme fatale pose by the window, as she first appears to him at her office.

Gittes opens another door. There’s no one visible through the doorframe, but then Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) and his deputy, Loach (Richard Bakalyan) appear from either side. This is the house where Gittes discovered Mrs. Mulwray and the girl. Escobar and Loach enter through the screen door and are reflected in the glass of the front door. More frames, filters, mirror-images… the patterns are dizzying and disorienting. That’s “Chinatown.” As Gittes says of the place (the part of the city, the state of mind the movie creates): “You can’t always tell what’s going on…”
Gittes enters smiling through another door. He can’t or won’t read the gestures of his associates who are trying to tell him something’s up. This is the famous scene where he sends his secretary Sophie (Nandu Hinds) to “the little girl’s room” to tell the off-color “Chinaman” joke he’s heard from his barber Barney. We don’t hear the joke in the essay (no dialog so far), but the music becomes louder and more discordant as the door opens behind Jake and we see… the real Mrs. Mulwray, whom he’s never met, standing in the frame. He turns and realizes she’s there, then turns back to Walsh (Joe Mantell) and Duffy (Bruce Glover) in shock and consternation.

Chinatown. The place in his past that haunts Gittes, the place where he tried to keep someone from getting hurt and wound up making sure that she was, keeps circling back and sneaking up on him, slipping out of the past and into the present. Jake charges ahead with his investigation, the camera often trailing right behind him, peering over his shoulder. But, as in this scene and so many others, for every door that opens (or shuts) before of him, another one appears behind him, introducing something or someone he did not see coming.

As if exiting, frame left, Gittes opens another yet door — but this one says: Water and Power. Chief Engineer: Hollis I. Mulwray. (Yes, “I.”) On the late Mr. Mulwray’s desk is a framed portrait of Evelyn Mulwray with a horse (“I went riding… bareback…”). As Jake investigates, flashes of light, like glints of sunlight on water, appear through the frosted glass of the office door behind him. Through the door enters Russ Yellburton (John Hillerman), Deputy Chief of the Department. (Jake visits these offices on two separate occasions, but they are mixed together here.) In a long tracking shot, Yellburton escorts Gittes out of Mr. Mulwray’s office, through the reception area (and past the stern secretary) into Yellburton’s office.

More framed photographs on the wall of the reception room, including one of Mrs. Mulwray’s father and husband together in 1932. Jake opens the door to the office to find workers removing the late Hollis Mulwray’s name. Another door opens behind Gittes, and it is Yellburton’s secretary, allowing him admittance to Yellburton’s office. All these doors, opening and closing, hiding secrets and promising revelations, begin to feel like elements in a labyrinth. No matter where Gittes goes, he winds up revisiting the same places…
And now Mrs. Mulwray with Lt. Escobar — and behind her, in another doorway, is Gittes, with Loach behind him. Mrs. Mulwray is surprised to see him, but he takes control of the situation. It is the beginning of a small conspiracy, an understanding between them.

Gittes stands before the big, thick, black, forbidding door of Mrs. Mulwray’s house. Kahn takes his card and then shuts it in Jake’s face. I’ve always thought that if you took out all the footage of Jake waiting for admittance, or otherwise loitering in doorways, “Chinatown” would be about an hour shorter. Twice, he waits at this doorway. The second time he pushes his way in, past the maid, who is draping the furniture (ghost-like), passing through the house and out through the arched portal into the back yard….

Reverse angle, night, from the back looking through the house and out the open front door. A puff of smoke from frame left reveals Gittes’ presence out-of-frame. A car pulls up out front. Noah Cross, with his walking stick, enters the house and comes toward the camera out onto the back patio.
A framed photograph of Cross in 1929, also with the walking stick. Dissolve to Cross and “Mr. Gitts.” Cross puts on his spectacles to examine what his chef has just served for lunch: A fish, one dead eye staring up from the plate. (“I hope you don’t mind. I believe they should be served with the head…”) Dissolve to another fish, this one on a flag sewn into a quilt, with the letters A C — Albacore Club. Another clue.

Dissolve to something shiny in a tidepool (“That’s where life begins…”). A starfish rests on a submerged rock. Gittes is squinting, trying to make it out. We’re in Mrs. Mulwray’s back yard. She enters through a gate behind him, and Jake casually drops the implement he was using to poke around in her pond.

The reservoir: A man with a knife (played by Roman Polanski) slits open one of Jake’s nostrils. An orange grove: Jake with a bandaged nose, wearing broken sunglasses with one lens punched out — yet another image of flawed/partial vision. Dissolve to two pocket watches (like the lenses of glasses), one of them smashed. It’s the method Gittes has used to find out how long Mr. Mulwray stayed at the ocean: one watch placed on either side of his tire tread. They tell him the time, but not what Mulwray was doing there. Water on the brain?

And, again, the glasses with the cracked lens. The images are all flowing together.
Mrs. Mulwray’s bathroom. She is cleansing the cut on his nose. The only dialog in this montage:
Evelyn: What’s wrong?
Jake: Your eye.
Evelyn: Wh-what about it?
Jake: There’s something black in the green part of your eye.
Evelyn: Oh, that. It’s a ff-flaw… in the iris.
Jake: Flaw?
Evelyn: It’s a sort of birthmark.
They kiss.

The flaw in the eye, a birthmark. That is the story of Mrs. Mulwray’s fate. And it’s Jake’s, too. She was born with hers. He still can’t see his own.

In bed, Jake lies on his back. To his left, Evelyn faces him in profile, one eye visible to the camera. Music cue: Fred Astaire singing “The Way You Look Tonight” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. The song, in a piano transcription, is used in the actual film — along with others circa 1937, including a solo piano version of “Easy Living” and Bunny Berigan’s famous recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” “The Way You Look Tonight” was introduced by Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and won the Academy Award for Best Song.

In this bedroom scene, the calmest in the film until it is interrupted by a phone call, Evelyn flirtatiously prods Jake about his past in Chinatown (“Cherchez la femme… ?”). Dissolve to Mrs. Mulwray driving her white convertible at night after rescuing Jake at the Mar Vista Rest Home. The windshield pane on the left has been cracked by gunfire. Jake looks over at her as she gently brushes something out of her eye. If you know where the movie is going, it’s a lovely moment… that gives you chills.
When Evelyn is called away from bed (suddenly self-conscious about her nakedness — not shown here), Jake follows her, smashing out a tail light in her car (yet another broken lens) to make it easier to track in the dark. The trail leads… to the house where Katherine (Belinda Palmer) is being kept.
Mrs. Mulwray is shocked to see Jake, who is repulsed by what he (thinks he) has seen. She looks at him, ravaged, her face half-lit with one tearful eye in darkness, and one tender cheek in the light, looking swollen and bruised.

Oh but you’re lovely
With your smile so warm
And your cheek so soft
There is nothing for me but to love you
just the way you look tonight…

And we return to the broken glasses, wrapped in a handkerchief. Escobar opens the door of Mrs. Mulwray’s white convertible in Chinatown. The windshield is still cracked. Mrs. Mulwray, her body limp, falls halfway out of the car, her left eye blown out by a bullet. Jake stares, and raises his gaze to Katherine, who is screaming. Noah Cross looks at “the girl” and pulls her back to him, putting his hand over her eyes. She’s his, too — his daughter, and granddaughter — but Evelyn never wanted her to know that. Somehow in this extraordinary shot, the camera moves in front of Jake (as Escobar lifts Mrs. Mulwray’s corpse back into the front seat), turning to pick him up again, dazed, on the right. Freeze-frame. Dissolve to the earlier image of the distraught and battered-looking face of Mrs. Mulwray behind the wheel of the same car…

Lovely, never, never change
Keep that breathless charm
Won’t you please arrange it
‘Cause I love you
Just the way you look tonight…

– – – – –

There are many other dimensions to Chinatown — the historical and political background involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the catastrophic failure of William Mulholland‘s St. Francis Dam, the purchase of Owens Valley water rights to irrigate the San Fernando Valley, and so on…
But this is a love poem — to Mrs. Mulwray, to the private eye movie, and to film noir. Just the way they look tonight.

You can watch Jim Emerson’s deconstruction of The Dark Knight here. Coming soon: In the Cut Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco, which looks at Don Siegel‘s 1958 filmThe Lineup. Emerson is a Seattle-based writer, critic, editor, blogger, video essayist, gardener and pedant. He is the founding editor of, where he also maintains his blog, Scanners.

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