Justice Issues and “Chinatown”

 “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”  Noah Cross 


We all have archetypes that spur us individually. Our backgrounds, our struggles, our loves, loyalties and rivalries combine to create passions, positive and negative, that charge us. These are passions that energize rather than enervate. Because of these personal experiences and passions, each of us have genres that are intensely meaningful, story types to which we return again and again.

I have two. One is “The Joseph Story” which is any story that follows loosely the account of Joseph from the Old Testament. Favorites that fall under this particular archetype are Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Field of Dreams, Heaven Can Wait (1978 version)andDisney’s Beauty and the Beast. Each of these four, while wildly different movies, follows a similar storyline concerning a dreamer with a vision. In the face of events that drag the character further and further from this vision ever being achieved, the vision miraculously comes to fruition in the end, albeit in an often different way than imagined. It’s a wonderful archetype I’ll write about at a later date.

The second story type that drives me revolves around justice. 

There are a couple of therapy sessions we need not explore here that would explain why I am obsessed with justice…. not particularly for myself but for the people around me and others I encounter in the world. Consequently, movies that explore justice are some of my favorites of all time, movies I will watch again and again and again. Examples here include Erin Brockovich, In the Name of the Father and Norma Rae. (There are quite a few others I could list.) Each of the movies mentioned are splendid movies even apart from my justice obsession. Erin Brockovich is a wildly entertaining movie, more fun than any such movie has a right to be, a movie that cemented Steven Soderburgh’s status as one of the best directors in Hollywood, and a film that plays out in highly original ways while still being very much a crowd-pleaser. In The Name of the Father is simply one of the best movies of the 90’s and would have swept the Oscars in ’93 had it not been for a juggernaut called Schindler’s List. Norma Rae is a surprisingly gritty, wonderful film that holds up beautifully even today. I love these movies passionately and will show them to anyone, anytime. Yet there is one ‘justice movie’ I return to more than any. It’s a movie that had one of the biggest influences on my life; it is also one of the top 5 movies ever made. That movie is Chinatown.


I was twelve years old the first time I saw Chinatown…

 directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne. I was too young to see it in the theatre when it debuted to great acclaim in 1974.  But my mom, who saw it in the theatre and loved it, decided we could watch it together when it aired a few years later on television. Though I knew little about the movie,  I remember being excited to watch it as we sat in the living room in front of our TV set, which looked  exactly like this. Mom talked to me a little bit about the movie beforehand, explaining that it was thematically a pretty adult movie but she felt I could handle it and we could talk about it afterwards.

The movie opens with one of the most haunting, melancholy themes ever written for a motion picture. The entire score, actually, is my favorite film score of all time. It is perfect. It was written by Jerry Goldsmith who famously had to write the score in a mad dash over 10 days when the original score was thrown out after a disastrous test screening. For those interested in the score, here is a wonderful piece about it well worth reading. If you don’t know the score, here is the main theme:

I was sucked into the world of the movie from the main title onward and though I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to explain why, I could sense I was watching a masterpiece, even edited down, even not in widescreen. The world the movie creates is splendid and no doubt contributed to my love of Los Angeles that seems to grow stronger each day I live in this remarkable city. I was gripped by how brilliantly Polanski and Towne slowly revealed information, creating a beautifully unfolding mystery. Most importantly, I developed a deep love for the very human characters. I cared so much about what was going to happen to these people, I began to experience a growing nausea as the movie progressed and events spiraled out of control. This was suspense, though, not worry. Things in movies always worked out in the end.

Suffice to say I had no idea nor any preparation for the justifiably famous ending, one of the most devastating conclusions to a story imaginable.

While I’d certainly had my fair share of hard knocks to this point in my life, I still had a fairly rosy view towards stories, their purpose, their endings. My own hard knocks are probably a big reason movies and novels were so important to me even then.  Tough times are one of the reasons any of us enter narratives, to escape and to affirm our hope that things will work out all right. Chinatown was the first narrative I encountered where not only did things not work out all right, they truly could not end in a more horrible manner, particularly with the bad guy walking away free, clutching his prize. It was decades before I could look at or even listen to John Huston, so powerful and realistic and normal is his depiction of evil in the film. As the movie came to its gut wrenching and perfect end, I remember sitting for a few minutes in stunned silence, then exploding in anger. Anger at the movie, anger that this could happen, anger at my mom for allowing me to watch it. I was so frustrated! How could this be??  

Mom and I sat and talked about it for a long time after and she explained to me that as tough as it might be to handle, there are times in the world evil wins out and bad guys get away with their crimes.  It was one of those hard, necessary truths we all have to face at some point. This was my time, Chinatown my conduit to a new way of looking at the world. The movie and the ending haunted me for weeks and still in some ways informs how I approach and view the world.

For those who might not know, Polanski and Towne argued bitterly over the ending. The original ending of Towne’s brilliant script concluded with the good guys spiriting away. Polanski, however, fought for the dark finish. Four years previously, his wife Sharon Tate and unborn child were murdered by the Manson Family in one of the most infamous crimes in our country’s history. Polanski at the time was understandably not entertaining visions of happy endings. Polanski won out and the movie is all the better for it.

I’ve wondered since how much the movie has contributed to my own view of humanity. My theology is decidedly Calvinistic, which purports among other things that each individual human is capable of the greatest beauty, kindness and light while also being capable of the darkest thoughts and actions imaginable. I very much believe this and Chinatown imparts this view. The movie might then be the major reason one of my mantras is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I” a phrase many love to throw around but don’t really believe. It’s a rather meaningless phrase unless you believe you are capable of anything. This all leads into a discussion that, as much fun as it can be to debate, is better suited for a blog about philosophy than movies and food. Suffice to say though, that Chinatown is a deep, complex, shockingly honest look at humanity and justice. It was my first experience narratively with justice denied. It fueled my already fierce desire to make sure justice won out. The movie devastates and riles me to this day. With the release Tuesday of the restored Blu-Ray, it’s worth a revisit … or your first visit if you haven’t yet caught the brilliance of Chinatown.  

If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear not only your thoughts about the movie and the post, but also what are some of the stories and genres that energize you. Click the link just below under ‘Comments’ to join in.



17 thoughts on “Justice Issues and “Chinatown”

  1. I fell in love with Chinatown when I was about fourteen or fifteen I guess. But it was the city that I fell in love with first (I often do that, love films for where they are set rather than the story itself), then the story. For a long time I wanted it to be all right, I wanted the happy ending (and yes, the film is all the better for its actual ending) I wanted someone to shoot that monster right between the eyes. I bought a copy of the script (Faber brought out significant scripts as paperbacks – I have Chinatown, North By Northwest and The Usual Suspects), and then I really got it. I had similar feelings about LA Confidential, but I had read James Ellroy’s incredibly complex and hard-edged novel before I saw the film (and besides I was a lot older). I had a different view of justice, as much as I wanted happy endings and miscreants to get their comeuppance, I knew that things often did not pan out for justice and that sometimes you don’t get a happy ending. Losing my father at 12 helped me to be a little more cynical about the good guys always winning and right being done. Chinatown has long been on my list of great movies, and it thoroughly deserves its place in the list of brilliant movies.

    1. That’s beautiful, SJ. Thanks. I also love LA Confidential, it is also one of my top favorites. William Goldman, who I respect and adore, hated the ending as he wanted it to be like ‘Chinatown’ but I don’t think I could have handled it. Was the book similar? Or did they change the ending?

      And do you know if the original, much longer, happy ending version of the script of ‘Chinatown’ available anywhere?

      1. The book is the actual script, I believe it is edited to be exactly as it was on screen, but there are also notes on the script which make fascinating reading. I guess Towne wrote a different ending, I wonder if that still exists somewhere in some archive. It would be amazing to read it!

      2. I think I would have been annoyed if Goldman had had his way, Ellroy’s book is perfect, it is probably the only novel I have ever read that I come away with something different from it every time. I believe that Ellroy is the tough guy that his novels imply he is, there is a terrific authenticity that just cannot be tinkered with. It’s worth reading it with a notebook and pencil.

  2. You have just forced me add the Blu-Ray version of Chinatown to my Amazon cart. Great writing, Tom. Haven’t seen the film in so long and now I look forward to sharing it with my hubby. I am in sync with you in terms of the genres I connect with. I remember a specific film, “And Justice For All” with Al Pacino. I don’t know if it holds up, but when I first saw it, I was bound and determined to be a paralegal or lawyer. Almost transferred to a different school to do just that.

    1. The movie that made me want to go to law school was ‘Witness for the Prosecution’… I also loved “And Justice For All” and also wonder if it holds up! Another I should have added to this list is “The Verdict” with Paul Newman. I love that movie and it certainly deals with justice. Famously, David Mamet’s script ended without the verdict, left it hanging. But the studio said ‘No Way’. Can’t wait to hear what you two think about “Chinatown”!

  3. So Tom, will you be more scandalized by the fact that I didn’t own a cast iron skillet (thanks, by the way, for your donation) or by the fact that I have been your friend for over a decade and I have never seen Chinatown? I know, I know, what’s my problem?

    What film affected me? When I was still in college, I went and saw Dead Poet’s Society. By the end, I wasn’t just crying, I was weeping. In fact I couldn’t stop. I cried all the way from Westwood to Santa Clarita. It wasn’t really about the character Neil committed suicide, it was about his family not understanding him, a teacher who made a difference, a school that didn’t allow people who didn’t fit in to fit in, and the irrevocable choices people made. Very powerful. It’s part of the reason I teach in North Hollywood and try to open my room to those who don’t fit in and need an adult who will listen.

    It’s my spring break this week; I’ll add “watch Chinatown” to my To Do List.

    1. Ha! Not scandalized at all. I wish I could see it for the first time again, I am envious! I think the reason I love watching movies I love with people who have never seen them (as you well know) is because I can in part see the movie fresh, for the first time, through their eyes. I’ll be curious to see what you think.

      Very cool about ‘Dead Poet’s..” I have a couple of those that reduced me to weeping. I’ll have to write about them sometime. Thanks for that. It makes sense for sure.

  4. Chinatown is one of my all time favorites as well. I was horrified recently when telling someone who is younger than 25 about this film. She stupidly remarked “Why would I want to see anything made before I was born?” I couldn’t begin to try and convince her.
    My personal connection with the film is my grandfather, an engineering graduate of MIT, designed the viaducts in the San Fernando valley, having worked for the DWP shortly after the time period of this film. People are always floored when those basins in the valley flood in seasons of heavy rain when that is exactly what they were designed to do. John Leo Partin passed away when I was in my early 20’s before I’d seen this film. I wish I had seen it as a young kid like you, Tom, so I would know to ask him questions about his years at the DWP. Thanks for your post!

    1. wow! How very cool about your grandfather. I have a bio of William Mulholland on my shelf I’ve been meaning to pull down. This is as good an excuse as any. I imagine it will talk about the viaducts and maybe your grandfather. Thanks for the post!

      (And that is a remarkably silly comment by the girl! Why indeed…)

  5. Such a wonderful post, Tom! I identified with much of what you said. “Tough times are one of the reasons any of us enter narratives, to escape and to affirm our hope that things will work out all right.” This is so true. It’s why I love to “escape” into a good book, or blog about life-narratives of my own.

    I’ve still never seen Chinatown. Between the other Tiff and I being Chinatown-noobs, I think that merits a movie night soon. 🙂

    (p.s. I love the sound bite from the film! The post was even better when I read it the second time with the music playing in the background)

Leave a Reply