Is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown a Film Noir?

In his book More Than Night, Film Noir In Its Context, James Naremore splits traditional film noirs “generic, stylistic, or fashionable traits” into six categories: “noir characters and stories,” “noir plot structure,” “noir sets,” “noir decorations,” “noir costumes,” and “noir accessories” (Naremore, 1). These six generic categories are very useful when defining whether a film falls into the noir movement or not. The film noir movement dates from the 1940s to the early 1960s, and while Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) was released in 1974, it has been described as a film noir, but it also has key elements that go against the traditional film noir description.

Chinatown is definitely not a film noir because it goes against so many of the classic film noir traits; however, Polanski does use these traits to his benefit and to further inform the viewer.

Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown 1974

The first category that Naremore describes is noir characters and stories; this category is particularly interesting when applied to Chinatown because its characters are not traditional noir characters, but the story fits the description of a traditional noir story. The story of J.J Gittes, a hard-boiled private eye hired to investigate a marital affair and ends up investigating a murder, fits in very well with the traditional noir movement. However, the characters in the story do not fit as well.

The choice of actors, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, fit with the noir movement, but the characters that they played do not. “Nicholson and Dunaway have certain physical and stylistic resemblances to Bogart and Bacall” (two famous actors from The Big Sleep and other noir classics), and “these are obviously played up through costume, makeup, and gesture” (Grant, 187). The character that Dunaway plays, Evelyn Mulwray, has a delicateness to her and a basic anxiety and despair that becomes more visible as her true situation unweaves itself. Dunaway “never generates the sense of independence and courage that Bacall brought to her hard-boiled roles;” Dunaway’s “qualities of wit and sophistication- those characteristics that made Bacall such an appropriate romantic partner for the hard-boiled detective- are quickly seen to be a veneer covering depths of anguish and ambiguity” (Grant, 187).

Another way that Evelyn Mulwray’s character goes against the traditional female characters in film noir is revealed at the end of the film. Evelyn Mulwray, for most of the film, seems to be the femme fatale, which Karen Burroughs Hansberry describes in her book Femme Noir Bad Girls of Film as:

“The dark side of the female: women who, in turn, could be avaricious, selfish, possessive, slovenly, calculating, masochistic and callous. While usually possessing a keen intelligence and shrewd cunning, these were women totally lacking in morals, bent on satisfying their own lustful, mercenary, or violent desires, utterly aware of their unique feminine tools, and willing to capitalize on them whenever necessary. “(2)

Evelyn seems to be cold, selfish, and calculating when she lies to the Lieutenant about the details of her husband’s death; it seems as if she doesn’t care. She also later appears to be violent and lacking morals when it appears that she has her husband’s girlfriend tied up in a house. However, the very interesting revelation at the end of the film is that Evelyn Mulwray is a loving, caring woman who is just trying to protect her daughter-sister from her father’s raping hands. Also, on a second viewing, one notices a hesitant and nervousness in Evelyn Mulwray that runs throughout the film.

Nicholson’s character, J.J. Gittes, also goes against the traditional noir characters. Nicholson attempts to be the tough, masculine, witty private eye, but he fails in many ways. However, Gittes is quite hopeless; the first example of this is when Gittes fails to be able to tell the Chinese joke, and the second is when Gittes gets his nostril sliced and then wears a ridiculous white bandage for the next hour of the film. However, the fact that the protagonist is a male does go along with traditional film noirs.

Gittes’ character further falls out of the traditional film noir private eye prototype when he fails to expose the political conspiracy that surrounds him, and also when he fails to save Evelyn Mulwray up until the section that takes place in Chinatown, the situation closely resembles “that of The Maltese Falcon (John Huston 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). It is at this point, however, that the action… takes a vast departure from that of the traditional hard-boiled story” (Grant, 188). Gittes is unable to punish the guilty Noah Cross. Gittes tries every angle, but he is completely unsuccessful against the evil Cross, and the situation has the exact opposite results of what Gittes was fighting for. Cross is then left free to continue his raping of the land and his raping of his daughter-granddaughter. The characters in Chinatown resemble those of traditional film noirs, but they seem to fall apart at the end of the film.

Another interesting separation between Gittes and traditional noir private eyes is in their names. The name of a protagonist can often “provide insight…into their nature and reflect their attitude, class and heritage” (Russin, 80). A character’s name can also greatly affect the way that the viewer perceives them. Some of the names of the traditional noir detectives are very compelling, for example: “Sam Spade, with its implication of hardness and digging beneath the surface; Philip Marlowe, with its aura of knightliness and chivalry; and Lew Archer, with its mythical overtones” (Grant, 187). Then there is J.J Gittes, which Noah Cross pronounces “Gits,” which connotes selfishness and snatching.

The next category that Naremore uses is noir plot structure, which Chinatown both supports and despises. Chinatown does not contain flashbacks, while many traditional film noirs do contain flashbacks as part of their structure. However, Chinatown, like most traditional film noirs, does have a subjective narrative. The narrative follows J.J. Gittes; as a viewer, we only know as much as he knows, and we see everything from his point of view. One example of this is Mrs. Mulwray’s sister-daughter; we only find out that Katherine is Mrs. Mulwray’s sister-daughter when she tells Gittes. The subjective narrative really forces the viewer to see the film from the protagonist’s point of view.

Noir sets are the next category of film noirs; Chinatown both does and does not fit into this category. The normal sets for film noirs are “urban diners, shabby offices, and swank night clubs.” These types of places are present in the film, but they aren’t quite right (Naremore 1). Gittes’s office, for example, is not exactly shabby; there are framed photos on the bright walls, Gittes has a nice dark wood liquor cabinet and a comfortable-looking waiting room.

So the set is right, but the shabbiness just isn’t there. Another example of this is the restaurant where J.J. Gittes meets Mrs. Mulwray. The restaurant does serve food and drinks, just like an urban diner would, but the red rose on the table and the suit-clad waiters indicate that it is definitely more upscale than any urban diner would be. Polanski brings elements of the noir sets into his film, but with an upscale more ritzy twist to them.

The next category is noir decorations; this is very fascinating with respect to the mise-en-scene in Chinatown.

Polanski knows the generic characteristics of film noir, and he is twisting and exploiting them throughout the film. The first line of the film, delivered by Gittes, really brings a major noir decoration to the immediate attention of the viewer, Venetian blinds. “All right, enough is enough – you can’t eat the Venetian blinds, Curly. I just had ’em installed on Wednesday” (Towne, 1). Venetian blinds are widely used in traditional film noirs, and Polanski really uses that to bring his intentions of making a film noir to the viewer’s attention. Another example of noir decorations that Polanski uses in Chinatown is neon lights. When Gittes and Cross first arrive in Chinatown, there are two medium shots of two different neon signs. Polanski definitely uses the noir decorations to his advantage throughout the film.

Noir costumes are the next category that Naremore describes, and Chinatown’s costumes definitely fit in with traditional noir costumes. The best example of the noir costume is the snap-brim hat, which is worn by classic noir detectives. Polanski uses the snap-brim hat in much the same way that he uses the Venetian blinds. The snap-brim hat is all over the place in Chinatown. The snap-brim hat makes its first appearance in the very first scene that we see, a photo of Curley’s wife and her lover, who happens to be wearing a snap-brim hat. J.J. Gittes wears one, the police lieutenant wears one, Hollis Mulwray wears one, many people in the background wear them, and even Mrs. Mulwray wears a snap-brim hat. The first time that we see Evelyn Mulwray in Gitte’s office, she is wearing a snap-brim hat, which is very strange since this particular type of hat is made for men. Polanski used the snap-brim hat to bring the noir tradition over the edge and into a completely new place.

Three of the most prominent noir accessories are also heavily used in Chinatown, “cigarettes, cocktails, and snub-nosed revolvers” (Naremore, 1). Cigarettes are another item that is overemphasized, like the Venetian blinds and the snap-brim hat. There are two times during the film when cigarettes are explicitly referred to and used. The first is in the office of Yelburton when Gittes is waiting to be seen. Gittes uses his cigarettes as part of his strategy to annoy the secretary into letting him in to see Yelburton.

The second time that the classic noir accessory is focused on is in Gitte’s office. Evelyn Mulwray is smoking, and when she lights a second cigarette, Gittes points out to her that she already had one, and there is a close-up of her already burning cigarette as she puts it out in the ashtray. Cocktails are also emphasized in this film; the first thing that Gittes offers to Curley to console him is a shot of bourbon. There are also several other times when drinks are ordered and displayed, for example, in the restaurant where Gittes meets Evelyn Mulwray or at Cross’ house.

The third classic noir accessory that is used in Chinatown is the snub-nosed revolver. This item is used very interestingly and omitted in one very significant place. Mulvihill uses the snub-nosed revolver on two separate occasions, and by the cops who shoot Evelyn. However, Evelyn’s gun, which is focused on for the longest time, is a gun that is similar in size to the snub-nosed revolver, but Evelyn’s gun is automatic. This seems like an interesting twist that the only person using an automatic weapon is the one who gets killed by a snub-nosed revolver. Polanski seems to be using the noir accessories to comment on the noir classics in opposition to the newer action/thrillers.

Another element that greatly affects Chinatown with respect to the film noir movement is color versus black and white. The classic film noir world is filled mostly with black, dark gray, and some white, while Chinatown is filled with color. Polanski carefully controlled “his spectrum of hue and tone in order to give it the feel of film noir, but it is nonetheless color with occasional moments of rich golden light – as in the scene in the dry riverbed” (Grant, 184). Much of the darkness is absent from the mise-en-scene of Chinatown, which really takes away the element of dark shadows and angled lights that is so prevalent in classic film noirs. It is also interesting to note that the moments in which Polanski used warm color in scenes that did not fit in with noir sets, for example, the natural landscapes where Mr. Mulwray strolled and the dry riverbed where Leroy Shuhardt, the local drunk, was drowned.

Chinatown should not be called a film noir because it is not a classic film noir. However, Polanski’s Chinatown should not be denied access to the title film noir because it uses most of the aspects of film noir in the choice of actors, mise-en-scene, story, and plot structure. The only solution to this problem is to make a new title, one that respects the fact that Chinatown is not a film noir but does resemble one. This title perhaps should be modern noir, and some other films that could fall into this category might include Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), among others.

Scroll to Top