Sunday, September 11, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Jake's Muddy Motivation in “Chinatown”

What is Jake’s motivation in Chinatown? In a first viewing of the movie, it seems fairly clear: At first he wants to catch Hollis Mulwray cheating, then he wants to find out what was really going on. But to what end? Once you start asking that question, more and more questions arise. Let’s break down his goals / motivations in every section of the movie:

1:57 In the first scene, obviously, he’s finishing up his work for Curly
  • Presents photos to Curly
3:38 Then we get seven scenes of working for the fake Mrs. Mulwray, trying to catch her “husband” cheating.
  • Gets hired by fake Mrs. Mulwray
  • Visits Water Board hearing
  • Follows Hollis to dry riverbed, where he sees him speak to a boy on horseback.
  • Jake then follow Hollis to the ocean. Hollis stays on the beach all night.
  • Jake is at the office the next day, looks at photos of Hollis arguing with Cross, gets call from one of his operatives.
  • Takes photos of Hollis and “mistress” rowing at Echo Park
  • Takes photos of them at an apartment.
16:20 Then we get two scenes dealing with aftermath of that case
  • In barbershop after story breaks, insulted by other customer
  • Back at the office, the real Evelyn Mulwray says she’ll sue him.
20:37 So what does Jake do now? Well, it’s not clear what he intends to do. All we can tell is that he starts trying to meet with Hollis...
  • Stops by Hollis’s office, told he’s just gone out to lunch, snoops around.
  • Jake is escorted into Yelburton’s office, where he asks questions.
  • On the way out, he finds out Mulvihill is working as a thug for Yelburton.
  • Jake goes out to the Mulwrays’ house. He sees the eyeglasses in the pond but doesn’t realize what they are. There’s no Hollis, but Evelyn is there and suddenly drops the lawsuit. She tells Jake he can find her husband at a reservoir.
  • At the reservoir, Jake is there when the cops find Hollis’s dead body.
33:25 Okay, so Jake clearly can’t meet with Hollis. What is his goal now? We have no idea. Why doesn’t he simply go home? Why does he go to the coroner’s? For the next eleven scenes (26 minutes of screentime) Jake has no clear motivation:
  • With Evelyn at the coroners. The police ask her questions. To shield her from their scrutiny, Jake pretends that she was the one who hired him.
  • Outside the morgue, she thanks him and says she’ll pay him to back that up. She leaves.
  • Jake goes back inside the morgue for some reason. He finds out more about Hollis and also a dead bum, drowned in a dry river bed.
  • Jake goes out to the river bed, speaks to the boy on horseback about water dumping.
  • Jake goes back to reservoir at night. Mulvihill and a man with a knife are there (why?) Jake gets his nose cut.
  • Back in his office, Jake is all bandaged up and finally tries to explain to his operative what he wants: “I want the big boys that are making the payoffs” “Then what?” “Sue the shit out of them” So he’s been putting together a lawsuit this whole time? As one of his operatives responds, “Sue people like that, they’re likely to be having dinner with the judge who’s trying the suit.” Jake never gets to explain, because Ida Sessions (the fake Mrs. Mulwray) calls, but won’t meet, just tells him to check the obituaries.
  • Then he’s at a restaurant with Evelyn for some reason. He tells her the check wasn’t good enough, because he thinks she’s hiding something. Asks about her maiden name for some reason and finds out it’s Cross.
  • Their conversation continues outside. She correctly points out, “There’s nothing more to say.” He responds, “It seems like half the city is trying to cover it up and that’s fine by me.” So why does the story continue?
  • And yet he goes back to Yelburton’s office, waits outside, sees picture of Noah and Hollis, finds out history of the water board.
  • Inside office. Accuses Yelburton of hiring fake Mrs. Mulwray. What? Why? How?
  • Returning to his office, he find Evelyn there, and she hires him to find out who killed her husband. He finds out more about Cross.
59:58 So now he finally has a client, but wait, in the next scene he takes on another client (or at least doesn’t say he’s not taking the case) so now he’s working for Cross as well (despite the fact that the two clients have conflicting interests)
  • Meets with Cross. Cross hires him to find Hollis’s missing mistress. Leaves saying he has to check on some orange groves. What? Why? Where did that come from?
  • Hall of records. Finds out about recent escrow sales of all the groves.
  • Orange groves, gets shot at and knocked out by angry growers.
  • Evelyn wakes him up. They called his employer.
  • Drives away with Evelyn. Jake has figured most of it out. Makes connection between obit and the land sales.
  • Stop by rest home. Find that old people own the land, don’t know it. Attacked again by Mulvihill and the man with the knife, gets away with Evelyn.
  • Her house. She treats his wound, they have sex, discuss his time in Chinatown, she gets a call, has to go. Tells him her father may have killed Hollis.
129:23 So now we get another shift, because Jake instantly decides that she’s some sort of bad guy and starts to follow her. But if she’s his client, whose interest is he now serving? Does he value his contract with Cross over his contract with her? That seems unlikely.
  • Jake runs out and breaks her taillight before she goes,
  • then follows her to…
  • Another house. Catherine is there, drugged.
  • Evelyn comes out to her car but Jake is there. He accuses her of killing her husband (the murder, you’ll recall, that she hired him to solve.) He threatens to call the cops. Evelyn says Catherine’s her sister, implies there was no affair. Gittes is satisfied, agrees not to call cops, leaves.
135:29 So now, once again, the movie is basically over. Surely his contract with Evelyn is now void, as there’s no longer any trust between them, and he doesn’t call Cross with the information of where Catherine is, so he seems to have abandoned that contract as well. He’s solved the mystery of the conspiracy, but there’s little he can do about it. Essentially, the movie starts up again, when...
  • In the night, someone calls Jake saying Ida Sessions wants to see him. He writes down address and goes back to sleep.
  • Goes out in the morning. Finds her dead. Cops are hiding there. They try to arrest him and imply that they’ll arrest Evelyn, though it’s not clear what the charges would be in either case. It seems as if the police were the ones who called him, but it’s unclear why. He tries to explain some but not all of what’s going on.
1:44:40 So now he has a new goal, trying to protect Evelyn from the police.
  • He takes them to the ocean to show them where the water is being dumped. They say it’s just runoff. Have your client in my office in two hours.
  • Jake goes to the main Mulwray house, presumably to warn Evelyn about the police. It’s being packed up. He finds the glasses in the pool, and evidently concludes that Evelyn killed her husband after all.
1:47:16 So now his goal is to once again pin it on Evelyn. And again we ask, to what end? Whose interest is he serving?
  • He goes to the house where Evelyn is holding Catherine. He finds them packing up too, calls cops to come there and arrest Evelyn, presents the glasses, accuses her of the crime, and finally gets the truth about Catherine. He seems to regret calling the cops and hustles Evelyn and Catherine out the door, telling them he’ll meet them in Chinatown.
1:54:10 So now his goal is to once again protect Evelyn from the police
  • The police arrive at the house. He says that Evelyn left for her maid’s house, offers to take the cops there.
  • He takes them to Curly’s house instead, insists on going in first, flees out the back with Curly.
  • The Mulwrays’ main house: Jake gives their luggage to Curly and arranges for Curly to meet them in Chinatown that evening and take the women to Mexico on his boat.
2:00:00 So now he’s all set, but he inexplicably chooses this moment and this place to accuse Noah Cross of the murders, without any back-up from his operatives or the cops, and without any plan for arresting Cross. 
  • Calls Cross, tells him he’s found the girl.
  • Cross comes, Jake confronts him with the glasses. Cross admits all, has Mulvihill come out with a gun to claim the glasses. Cross insists on being taken to the women.
2:03:53 So now what’s Jake’s goal in the final scene? He just faked out the police by taking them to the wrong address, but it seems that he can’t or won’t do that with Cross, so he takes him where he wants to go. Does Jake have some scheme to get out of handing them over to Cross? We never find out.
  • Takes Cross and Mulvihill to where the girl is. The police are there and they arrested his operatives. They arrest Jake as he tries to explain. Evelyn, Catherine and Curly try to sneak out but Cross spots them and tries to grab Catherine. Evelyn pulls a gun, shoots Cross, and tries to get away with Catherine, but police shoot at her fleeing car and kill her. The police let everybody go and Cross claims Catherine.
So you put all this together and what do you have? Jake is constantly acting against his own self-interest and even against the interest of his clients. Whose interest does it serve when he tries, twice, to nail Evelyn for killing her husband? She’s the client! In the end, Jake’s actions aren’t those of a P.I., they’re those of a cop, serving the public interest. His actions only make sense if they’re leading up to an arrest: The idea that he’s going to sue the conspirators makes no sense. All that he can logically do with the evidence he’s collected is try to have them arrested. Likewise, he sure seems like he wants to arrest Evelyn, and later Cross, for the murder of Hollis, despite the fact he has no authority or ability to do so, and no one wants him to do it.

Jake affects the demeanor of an ultra-cynical gumshoe-for-hire, and a first viewing of the movie seems to back that up, but if you actually try to follow his logic, it could not be less cynical or self-serving.  Ultimately, the movie successfully plays it two ways: It feels appealingly gritty and grimy, but it goes down easy because that grit is only superficial and hides a very idealistic core. Ironically, this duality makes the movie truly cynical.

Tuesday: I dive deeper into some of those unanswered questions the movie leaves you with (75 of them!)


Harvey Jerkwater said...

There's a reason Chinatown was made in 1974. The Vietnam War was virtually over and its horrors public knowledge; the Watergate investigation was at full throttle; the idealistic weirdness of the previous decade came to diddly; the Civil Rights Movement had forced the white public to see the evils it wanted to ignore; riots had burned many of the cities in recent years; the crime rate was skyrocketing; the post-war boom was ending and the economy headed down. By 1974, the American zeitgeist was that maybe We the People aren't as good as we always said we were and maybe the world around us isn't as fair as we claimed it was. Yet we still want to believe that we are and it is.

Jake Gittes embodies the "surface cynic, hidden idealist" character you found in a lot of movies. I suppose the big differences are that Gittes hides his idealism even from himself and that in the end the surface cynic was probably right.

"Idealist gets punched in the nuts" is a common theme of the era.

Matt Bird said...

Very good points!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Heh -- I just remembered another classic movie from this period with the same core: Planet of the Apes. Taylor starts off a confirmed misanthrope, discovers the value of his humanity, and ends by telling off Dr. Zaius regarding the humans who preceded the talking apes. "He was here before you. And he was better than you."

Then the famous ending, where Taylor finds out that his newfound faith in humanity was misplaced.

"Idealist gets punched in the nuts." A favorite theme of the Nixon years.

Garrett said...

Nice close examination of Jake's motives.. As you point out, he doesn't make much sense as a human being, so seems to be more of a archetype than anything else. It's more of a mood piece, meant to be a throw-back to Marlowe and film Noir, right? He is a man outside the law, the only one who can fix the corruption of the powers that be.

It seems like part of what they are setting up is that Jake has a chance to redeem his lost sense of idealism with this case... He was crushed by the bureaucracy of his Chinatown days, and finds no respect taking smutty pictures as a low-down P.I, so when he is set up, he claims that he has to find who did it to protect his reputation, but really what he's after is the thrill of detective work.. The part of him that he lost in Chinatown isn't gone and so he briefly tries to get to the bottom of a real case. For once he can find the capital "T" Truth. And that's what's so crushing about the ending... The cynicism and strongmen of Chinatown always defeat the Truth in this type of film.

zxcvb said...

You're analysis is wrong. His clear underlying motivation is always to right what he perceives as wrong. And you didn't pay attention to his last words of the film.

Here's a great scene by scene analysis of Chinatown http://hartzog.org/j/chinatownscenes.html