Chinatown: Above the Film Noir Genre

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The viewer sees a private eye and beautiful client. First thought, “It’s definitely another Hollywood crime drama.” On the surface, Chinatown has all the elements of a film noir: the presence of a beautiful but dangerous woman, otherwise known as the femme fatale, a gritty urban setting, compositional tension (highly contrasting light and dark colors or oblique camera angles), and themes of moral ambiguity and alienation. Chinatown, however, is different. Polanski shot Chinatown with color film, and though his colors do appear especially vivid, color film precludes the contrast intensity that black and white film offers. In addition, Evelyn is not the classic femme fatale. Though Jake mistakes her for her husband’s killer at first, Mrs. Mulwray eventually emerges as the story’s most tragic victim. Yes, Chinatown for the most part conforms to the structure of film noir, but this film departs from the general genre, creating an entirely different element in which Roman Polanksi examines not only big-money corruption and its malignant obsession with money, but also larger, more human themes such as ignorance, authority, and the pervasiveness of evil. Like the film noir detectives that came before him, Jake exhibits some of the common traits of the typical private dick. He is a crass joker, he sis willing to get violent with both men and women who cause him trouble, and never lets physical threats scare him off a case. The standard film noir private eye is a passive, cool, cynical, masochistic character who maintains a subjective view of the case and can sift through peoples’ stories to solve the mystery. The thing that is different about Jake Giddes is that he doesn’t always seem to make the obvious, or even correct choice. Unlike most Hollywood private eyes, Jake tends to be wrong more often than he is right. This propensity to make mistakes, however, is what allows the audience to quickly identify with him better than they might a traditional private eye....
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