The most striking scene of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was to me, at its end. In this last scene, Polanski and his actors make us feel as if we’ve stumbled onto a real crime scene. The dark streets and flickering lights serve as a reminder of the sinister stories the film has acquainted us with, and the cramp gathering of the characters under the only light puts us in an uncomfortable state of expectation. Then we observe everything from eye level, with a few sudden movements yet no close-ups, simulating the vision of somebody on scene. A few over-the-shoulder and head shots puts us in the crowd. Part of the audience, waiting to see the films climax.
Jake, the audiences protagonist, is put outside the dominant position that a film’s hero is normally expected to hold, and is not allowed a successful conclusion. He is forced to betray the woman he wanted to save, and even his attempts at reasoning with the policemen, as a legitimate private investigator, is simply ignored. Because Jake is never given a chance to speak, and because Cross, the villain, keeps composure so well, and is headed by the authorities, we as an audience are pulled away from identification with Jake, and is instead put in a position to see things from the viewpoint of Cross, the embodiment of corrupt social structures.
Cross is more desperate in this scene, than at any other part of the film. Even whilst talking to Escobar, he is constantly looking for a sign of Evelyn and Katherine. But when they are found Cross never raises his voice to Evelyn, even when she shoots him in the arm, he knows he doesn’t have to. He tells Evelyn that the best way to keep him from getting Katherine is to murder him, but this is something never delivered upon. Rather, the scene closes with Cross taking Katherine away, getting the prize and conclusion that is usually reserved for our protagonist.
The way Cross succeeds in the end, is probably saddest part of the film. Escobar lifts his weapon to shoot at the retreating car, and Jake, in a final attempt to regain control, wrestles with the Escobar, but Jakes call was once again a mistake, as Escobar only aimed at the wheels, and once they were occupied in the shuffle, Loach stepped in and actually aimed directly at the car. Jakes mistake in judgement is evident only moments later. The long sound of the horn preparing us for the inevitable news, just like that other night outside her safe house, but this time she is dead, Loach has shot her. The image of her gaping wound is the final sign, this film does not conclude as we hoped.
The closing imagery, the death of innocence. Evelyn has been shot through her blemished eye, the legacy her father left her. Cross changes from villain to lamenting father and caring “granddad” and takes Katherine away. The future is his, LA, and his Katherine. There is no one left to oppose him. Even Escobar still misjudges what has happened. He lets the villain and killer go, and accepts Evelyn’s death as an accident, killed while attempting an escape.
Jake finally knows what’s going on, but it’s pointless. He can’t speak to anybody, it doesn’t matter. He has been a witness to the ignorance of evil, and the death it resulted in. Once again his attempts to save his love has instead lead to her death. He looks blankly at Evelyn’s corpse, his emotions held back, theres no point in showing them. Jake remembers the DA’s words: “Do as little as possible”, but only now it makes sense to him.
Walsh’s tries to comfort Jake by saying “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” But Walsh doesn’t understand, doesn’t know the meaning of what he’s just experienced. He tries to justify the tragedy of what happened literally; Because they were really in Chinatown. But Jake now understands, the evil work of Cross, and Evelyn’s tragic past did not happen in Chinatown, but in the most respectable areas of the City. Jake now sees that Chinatown is a metaphor of the whole world, a world as hard to understand, and desperate as the Asians living in Chinatown. He now understands why life with as little pain and suffering as possible, is a life where you “do as little as possible”. Polanski made a rather hopeless, and cynical film with Chinatown, but even if we choose to live a life of hope and aspirations, it’s worth it to know that life can sometimes throw us around, just as with Jake. And thus, this film, this ending scene, and it’s lessons, will stick with me, until I visit my Chinatown.