Good and Evil in Chinatown

One of the things that struck me most about Chinatown is the fact that in the end of the film,  Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Mulwray dies and the evil Noah Cross lives on without being punished. This is in direct contrast to the noir movies we’ve been discussing in class, in which the bad guys typically get their comeuppance by the end of the film. Most likely, this was because of the Code, which, as we read in The Rethoric of Emotion, “held that evil should not be shown as attractive or beneficial, either morally or practically.” As a result, most movies never let the bad guy live. The Lady From Shanghai. Double Indemnity. Laura. Kiss Me Deadly. The person who does wrong eventually gets what’s coming to them.

But Chinatown does the complete opposite of this.

Interestingly enough, the director, Roman Polanski, addresses this in a commentary that comes with the DVD. He says that he and the writer, Robert Towne, disagreed over how the movie should end. Towne wanted Mulwray to live and Cross to die, but Polanski insisted on having the other way round. They eventually parted as a result of the dispute, and Polanski said that he wrote the ending we see today just days before it was shot.

“I was absoulutely adamant that she has to die at the end if the film is to have any kind of meaning,” he said in the commentary. At 7:28 in the video below, Polanksi talks about why he thought ending the film that way was the right thing to do. He actually says that if he didn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about this film today.

Polanski and Towne say that they doubt the film could’ve been made today. According to Polanksi, he wouldn’t have been allowed to end it that way. I think this speaks to the fact that movies play a big role in society. Audiences like to see good triumph over evil; it feels as if everything is resolved and the experience is complete… and most movies cater to this need. Even now without the Code, movie makers still feel the need to resolve their films in this way.

This shows that Chinatown was revolutionary. Instead of just showing you a film and doing all the work for you, it had the guts to defy expectations and make the audience do some thinking. And it worked! Chinatown is still one of the most talked about films today.