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Chinatown: Noir Meets the Family Melodrama

Chinatown wasn’t the first Hollywood film to explicitly break the incest taboo, but it’s the one that tends to stick out most prominently in film lovers’ minds. The climactic reveal—”She’s my sister and my daughter!”—gains its explosive power from the care that Roman Polanski and Robert Towne, the director and screenwriter, took in setting up the story’s slow burn, allowing us to think the mystery would be about something else before springing the terrible surprise on us.

Years ago, when I was majoring in cinema studies, one of our introductory textbooks included an essay by John G. Cawelti called “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films,” the gist of which was that the movie was a deep subversion of the American private-eye myth much as, say, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller undermined western iconography. Cawelti describes watching Chinatown as provoking “an eerie feeling of one myth colliding with and beginning to give way to others.” From the moment I first read the article, I wondered: If Chinatown is about the private eye colliding with other myths, then what are those other myths? I wrote a paper about it for one of my classes, and once I figured out the answer, I could never look at the detective genre the same way again.

Cawelti argued that while Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes might look like a traditional private investigator, Chinatown puts him in places that are out of sync with the urban crime story, such as mansions and yacht clubs. Also, film noir is traditionally in black-and-white, but Chinatown is in color: What’s up with that?

I speculated that these elements might make more sense if we treated them as components of a Hollywood genre that matured almost simultaneously with the noir films: the sprawling family melodramas of directors like Vincente Minelli, Elia Kazan, or Douglas Sirk. (I even went so far as to suggest that Polanski’s muted color palette was where noir intersected with those directors’ Technicolor worlds.)

Melodramatic conventions also explains why Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Mulwray, was so much more neurotic and hysterical than the typical hard-boiled dame. Evelyn panics every time Jake threatens to go to the police with what he’s already discovered, because she knows that would drag out the traumas that she works so hard to repress. (She’s not entirely successful, of course; notice how she constantly stumbles over words like “Cross” and “father.”) And, of course, there’s that reveal scene—as well as the final, tragic confrontation that follows soon after.

I dug into the literature a bit more, and I discovered that while Cawelti was struck by how Polanski and Towne positioned Chinatown, where the final scene takes place, as “the symbolic locus of darkness, strangeness, and catastrophe,” where Jake’s pursuit of justice is crushed by the pervasive evil of Noah Cross, that would have come as no surprise to a critic like Thomas Elsaesser. In an essay called “Tales of Sound and Fury,” published two years before Chinatown came out, Elsaesser talks about classic melodrama as being set in a claustrophobic world where protagonists are constantly thwarted in their attempts to relieve their emotional pressures, let alone make their world a better place.

Chinatown on Noir Week at

So let’s say Chinatown is a family melodrama. Why is there a private investigator in the center of the story? The problem with Cawelti’s theory was that he lumped several writers together into the hard-boiled detective fiction basket, assuming that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were essentially interchangeable. But they aren’t, and from the beginning, Chandler had Philip Marlowe working the family melodrama beat.

It’s all right there in the very first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep: “I was everything the well-dressed private eye out to be… I was calling on four million dollars.” Those millions, though, have turned the Sternwoods into a “screwy” family: Vivian, the one Marlowe gets involved with, is a compulsive gambler, and her little sister Carmen is a psychopathic nymphomaniac. And talk about repression: Vivian is actively working to keep Marlowe from discovering Carmen is responsibile for the murder he uncovers early in his investigation.

(When it comes to repression, though, the film version of The Big Sleep had to obscure even more of the novel’s details, to the point that its confused plot has become the stuff of legend. And then there’s all those wisecracks Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe makes—”You want me to count to three or something, like a movie?”—as if the film is desperately trying to convince the audience that it’s really a detective picture.)

This isn’t an anomaly: As a character in The Lady in the Lake puts it, Marlowe associates almost exclusively with “people who are living on the raw edge of nervous collapse.” Each of his cases involves pushing those people to the brink, even if he doesn’t exactly know what’s going to be revealed. It’s almost a parody of psychiatric analysis: The traumas get identified, but instead of healing, Marlowe frequently ends up bringing more disruption and pain to his clients and their families.

It wasn’t just Marlowe, either: Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer covered the same territory, as did other literary sleuths (and as they do to this day). Chinatown, then, wasn’t quite the reinvention of the private eye myth Cawelti claimed; there was already an established pattern of hiding family melodramas in detective stories. But Towne and Polanski pushed that template further than their predecessors, who had been bound by a Hollywood “Production Code” that formalized social conventions, ever could. The explicit links they forged between sexual abuse and capitalist political oppression continue to reverberate through our popular culture: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who… novels are basically a power fantasy in which Lisbeth and Blomkvist mete out the vengeance Jake never could get for Evelyn.

Ron Hogan is the founding curator of, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness.


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