In 1937 Los Angeles, a private eye, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is hired by a Mrs. Mulwray to investigate the indiscretions she suspects of her husband Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water and Power Company. After following Mr. Mulwray, Gittes obtains photos of him with a girl, pictures published in the papers without his consent. As it turns out, the woman who hired Gittes was not Mrs. Mulwray; the real wife of Mulwray, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), visits Gittes at his office to introduce herself (by confirming that they have never met and that she certainly never hired him) and inform him of her intent to take legal action against him.
The mystery begins here: who was the woman pretending to be Mrs. Mulwray and what was her motive? While Gittes may have been able to maintain a level of distance and professionalism in his work as a PI, this new investigation concerns him personally; his curiosity about why anyone would want to slander Mulwray is second to his desire to know who set him up and to clear his name. In a meeting with Evelyn where he announces his intent to bring this information to light, she tells him that she will drop the lawsuit if he will stop his investigation. When he resists, she asks, “is this a business or an obsession for you?” Eventually, she complies and tells Gittes that he might find her husband at a certain water reservoir. When Gittes arrives, the police are already on the scene, as Hollis Mulwray was found drowned.
The mystery deepens. On the one hand, a murder needs solving, but on the other, there is another even less straightforward problem concerning Mulwray. L.A. is suffering from a drought, a drought severe enough to bring farmers into the city to protest and accuse Water and Power of stealing crucial resources. Yet in following Mulwray, Gittes discovers that fresh water is being secretly emptied into the ocean in the middle of the night. In his efforts to uncover more information, Gittes is apprehended by another PI apparently under the employment of Water and Power (Gittes’ seedier double) and an unassuming heavy (played by Polanski himself) who cut his nose for being “nosey.”
As it turns out, Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (played by occasional noir director John Huston), was once a co-owner of Water and Power (along with Hollis Mulwray) before it was turned over to the public. Over a lunch visit, Cross offers to double Gittes’ pay to find the girl with whom Mulwray was apparently having an affair, warning that Jake does not know what he’s dealing with (advice, Jake muses, that he was given while a cop in Chinatown). Jake discovers shortly after that the drought is in fact a fabrication of Cross’, with an end to buying the dried-up land from farmers at a low price in order to later replenish the area (with the water that was never in low supply) and sell it for a profit.
There is, following this development, a respite from the investigation, as Jake and Evelyn make love in her house. The scene is intimate not simply because they sleep together, but because Evelyn tries to find out more about Jake as a person, about his time working as a police officer in Chinatown where he did, as he puts it, “as little as possible.” “I want to know more about you,” she says, to which he replies that he is tired. He does, however, disclose that Chinatown was a place where one could never quite tell what was going on (“like you,” he says to Evelyn), and while he was there he suffered a great loss; in trying to keep a woman from getting hurt, he ended up making sure that she was.
The final, crucial developments happen quickly, and I’ll simply lay them out. Evelyn receives a call, her mood changes drastically, and she tells Jake she needs to leave; she also asks that he “trust” her, and warns him that her father is “crazy.” Jake follows Evelyn to a house where Mr. Mulwray’s girl is in bed and forced to take pills at Evelyn’s behest. Confronting her, Evelyn admits, reluctantly and tearfully, that the girl is her sister. In an exchange with a (newly appointed) lieutenant with whom Jake worked in Chinatown (Jake’s apparently more respectable double), he is told that Mulwray drowned with salt water in his lungs, despite being found in a river reservoir. Back at Evelyn’s house, Gittes discovers that a pond in their backyard is filled with saltwater, and in that pool he finds a pair of men’s glasses—or, indeed, he re-finds, as, in his first visit to this house, the Chinese gardener told him that salt water is “bad for the grass,” which, with his accent, sounds like “bad for the glass.”
From here, Jake concludes that Evelyn killed her husband and confronts her at the house where the girl is staying. The most troubling and unexpected and disorienting scene in the film, Evelyn reveals a secret, but not the one Jake believed he would extract from her: the girl is indeed Evelyn’s sister, but also her daughter. In response to this, Jake slaps her and screams that he “wants the truth.” She answers: “my father and I… [looks him in the eye, I would say cynically]…understand? Or is it too tough for you?” To Jake’s quiet response—“he raped you?”—she practically rolls her eyes. Later I will discuss this scene, and its centrality to what I will call the second film, Evelyn’s film, at length. But note now that Jake came to Evelyn with a definite idea about how she was betraying him, about the kind of knowledge she’s been keeping, about the kind of deceptive woman she is, and about the kind of clarity and satisfaction he will achieve when she tells the truth. Compare these expectations with her revelation. What satisfaction does this provide? What kind of world does this information clarify? What does it mean to know this, to know what Evelyn knows?
Evelyn is planning on running away with the girl, departing from her butler’s home in, of all places, Chinatown, the disorienting and unlucky place of Jake’s past, where attempts to help only guarantee harm. Of the glasses found in her backyard pond, Evelyn mentions that they did not belong to Hollis, “he didn’t wear bifocals.” Going quickly now, Jake contacts Noah Cross, making plans to meet him by offering information about the girl Cross had hired Jake to find. In their confrontation, Cross does not deny Jake’s accusations regarding his crimes against Evelyn, the city, and Hollis Mulwray. Mulvihill, hired by Cross, puts a gun to Gittes’ head, and, after warning that “it really isn’t worth it,” they force Gittes to lead them to Evelyn. In Chinatown, Evelyn does everything she can to protect the girl from Cross, who claims that the girl is “his too.” When Jake calls to Evelyn that he’s brought the police to help, Evelyn cries that Cross “owns the police,” and gets in her car to drive away. The police shoot her in the head, which lies noisily on the car horn. In the confusion, Cross easily makes away with the girl, covering her eyes to protect her seeing her dead mother; indeed the film calls so little attention to his escape that it is only upon realizing that the girls screams have faded away, that we realize that Cross has re-possessed her. Jake is fully expressionless as he stares at Evelyn. Finally, under the lieutenant’s orders (“just get him the hell out of here!”), Jake’s partners lead him away, and as Jake glances back, one says, in the film’s most famous line, “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”14