- What if Hollis, instead of spending the night on the beach, had gone home? Wouldn’t that have given away the whole plan, since Jake would have seen him with his real wife? Why go to this elaborate deception? How did they think they would get away with it: Surely everyone involved (Jake, Evelyn, Hollis) would raise a stink after the story ran in the papers? How could they have been sure that none of them would go to the press to refute the story?
- Was Hollis really having an affair with Catherine, or was he just being fatherly? If it’s the latter, how could the conspirators have been sure that he would engage in fatherly affection that would just so happen to look like an affair to Jake and the papers?
- If Cross has hired killers on his payroll, and he was willing to kill Hollis, why not just do that, which would have been much easier and far less likely to raise suspicion? What did Cross hope to accomplish with this plan? Get Hollis fired? Get him to commit suicide? Just discredit him long enough to win the vote? Would the public change their opinion of the dam based on this scandal?
- What’s up with the three addresses? Hollis and Evelyn have their nice house, then there’s the other house where Catherine has been stashed. Whose house is that? Who usually lives there? Then there’s the address where Hollis is photographed with Catherine. Whose apartment is that? Who usually lives there?
- How much time passes in the section of the movie between the confrontation with the real Evelyn and the discovery of Hollis’s death? Is it all one day, as it seems? If so, at what point is Hollis killed? Is he dead by the time the story hits the papers or due to an argument after it happens? Did Cross go there to kill him or was it a crime of passion? Where was Evelyn when the killing happened?
- Why does Jake try to find Hollis? To get him to drop the suit? To find out the truth? To apologize? If it’s the first, why does he keep looking for him after Evelyn has dropped the suit?
- Given what we later learn, Hollis seems to have been killed the night before Jake visits his office, if not earlier, so why does his secretary imply that he just stepped out for lunch? Did someone tell her to say that? To what end? Why does Yelburton then tell snoopy Jake that Hollis wouldn’t cheat if he was the one who created this whole elaborate scheme just to convince Jake that Hollis was cheating?
- Did Yelburton personally hire Ira Sessions to hire Gittes? Who is Sessions and how did they find her?
- Was Hollis killed for saying the dam would burst or to cover up the land scheme? Is the dam actually in danger of bursting, or did Hollis just say that because he knew what they were really up to? If not, do the schemers care that the dam at the center of their massive irrigation scheme might burst?
- After Jake discovers that Hollis is dead, what motive does he have to keep investigating? Why visit the morgue?
- Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the reservoir that night?
- Jake says he wants to get the big boys making the pay-offs. How? What will he do to them? What standing does he have for a personal lawsuit? Is he collecting evidence to hand over to the cops? Does he just want to expose them to the papers as a public-spirited gesture? Does he intend to extort hush money?
- Who asked for the restaurant meeting between Jake and Evelyn? He later seems unaware of Cross’s role in all this, so what inspires him to ask about the C in her name? Why should Evelyn hire him if he’s already doing the job for free?
- Why does Jake go to meet with Cross? What was the pretense for the meeting? What is he hoping to find out? (He asks almost no questions.) Jake confirms that the “mistress” is missing, but when did he find that out?
- Why does Jake go to check on some orange groves at this point?
- Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the old folks home? Surely there hasn’t been time for them to have been called out there, given that it’s out of town.
- Who calls Jake in the night to try to get him to come visit Ida Sessions? If it’s the cops (as is implied later) why would they do that? Surely not if they think he did it (because then he would know better)? Are they trying to frame him for the murder? Why? Who killed Ida Sessions? Why? Why did Ida know so much about the conspiracy that she understood that the man in the obituary column was one of the land buyers? It appears that she’s just an actress they hired for the part (and prostitute? It’s unclear what she means when she says that she’s a working girl) so why give her such a complete picture of the conspiracy?
- What did Jake think would happen with when he confronted Cross? What was his goal? Get Cross to turn himself in? Jake is unarmed, has no operatives there, hasn’t called the police, and has every reason to assume that Cross might bring his armed help.
- What is Jake’s plan when he takes Cross and Mullvahill to the girl?
- How do the police find the address in Chinatown? Did they follow his operatives?
It’s also interesting that the script originally had voiceover, which might have explained much of this, but Polansky made Towne cut it out. You might think that voiceover would have strengthened our bond to Jake, but I think it would have actually weakened it, because it would have made all of these plot holes obvious. It would have implied that Jake had some perspective on what’s going on, which would have encouraged us to get our own perspective. Without the voiceover, we’re just watching him take it all in and try to process it in real time, so we do the same, without ever taking a step back and asking “Wait, what about…?”
So yes, incredibly, all of these loose ends do indeed strengthen and deepen the movie, at least upon first viewing, and don’t cause a big problem for the viewer. The movie feels satisfyingly complex: deep, dark and mysterious. Before analyzing the movie here, I had seen it several times, and each time, I ended up hopelessly confused, but blamed myself for that and assumed that, if I ever watched the movie twice in a row, it would all brilliantly come together. Well, this time I finally watched it twice in a row, and realized that no, actually, it makes very little sense. But that’s a high standard to hold any story to. It works for individual viewings, and that’s all we can ask.