Anatomy of a Scene – Polanski’s “Chinatown”

I wrote this piece a few years ago for my Film Noir class. I discuss a rather important scene in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown. Enjoy!

The “Mother/Daughter” scene from Chinatown is essential to how the film will conclude; plot lines finally intertwine and the main character, J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson), comes to the realization that everyone he has encountered so far is interrelated—both figuratively and biologically.

In this particular “Mother/Daughter” scene, Jake comes to confront Evelyn Mulwray about new evidence he had recently found for the death of Hollis Mulwray, Evelyn’s now deceased husband. The basic action of this scene is that Jake enters the house that Evelyn, Katherine and Kahn are in, and confronts Katherine about the whereabouts of Katherine and the possibility that Evelyn had murdered her husband. Jake calls Lieutenant Escobar and tells him to meet him at this house. Evelyn, confused, asks why Jake called the police and he asks her if she knows any good criminal lawyers. Still perplexed about the situation, Jake pulls a cloth-wrapped pair of broken bifocals from his jacket pocket and lays them on table which he is sitting next to. He unwraps the bifocals and tells Evelyn that he found them in her and Hollis’ backyard pond. Unsure, Evelyn responds that they could be Hollis’ and Jake responds by saying that Hollis was drowned in the pond. Shocked, Evelyn is completely concerned; Jake demands that Evelyn tell him the truth before Escobar gets there. Evelyn and Jake become delirious: Evelyn has no idea what is going on (since she indeed did not murder her husband) and Jake is so fixed that Evelyn had killed her father that they get into a struggle. Jake asks who the girl is again and again. Evelyn tells him that her name is Katherine and that she is her daughter—Jake then hits her. Jake then asks for the truth again, and Evelyn says that Katherine is her sister; he hits her again while Evelyn states, every other time, that Katherine is her daughter and her sister. Jake throws her onto the couch and Evelyn finally reveals that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter—her father had raped her when she was fifteen years old. Bewildered, Jake doesn’t know what to do—but the all of the pieces finally fall into place. Evelyn looks at the eyeglasses and tells Jake that they are not Hollis’ because they are bifocals, which he did not wear (they are in fact those of Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father, but we do not find that out until later in the film). Jake decides to help Evelyn and Katherine escape from their father and Lieutenant Escobar by fleeing to Mexico; Jake plans for them to leave with a client of his and tells Evelyn to meet him in Chinatown, at Kahn’s house.

This scene occurs toward the end of Chinatown; Jake finally realizes how the two plots that were set up at the beginning of the film are coming together: the mysterious girl who was with Hollis (which turns out to be Katherine) and the water plot (which involves Noah Cross). Both Katherine and Noah are related, and thus the two plot lines come into focus, specifically in this scene.

The anatomy of this scene from a technical stand point is actually pretty basic. The scene is mostly shot from three distance levels—medium shots, medium close ups and close ups. There are some long shots, but most of the action is seen at either medium shots, medium close ups or close ups. The major shots of the scene are comprised of those near the door and when the characters are on the couch. The setting of the room in which this scene takes place is cluttered with luggage and other items, due to the fact that Evelyn and Katherine are on their way to the train. This creates a more clustered or claustrophobic feeling, a feeling that is found in most films noir. The cutting of the scene is rather fast at some points—giving the sense of adrenaline induced chaos that is unfolding before us. The lighting in this scene is minimal. The characters are usually in the shadows, but when there is light, it either hits the characters directly on or from behind. The camera follows Jake and Evelyn around in a circular pattern—they begin on the left side of the room (by the door), circle around to the couch, and back to the door by the end of the scene. The characters are coming around full circle: Evelyn admitting her dark past and Jake discovering the true facts about the death of Hollis. There is no music in this scene and it is probably not needed. This is an intense scene no matter what, and music would not be necessary to heighten the already high tension. The only sounds that are truly heard are when Jake calls Escobar, when Jake hits Evelyn and throws her to the couch and their voices.

This scene is incredibly significant—everything practically culminates in this particular scene. Evelyn tells Jake her secret that her father raped her as a teenager and that the girl Jake saw with Hollis was Katherine, both her daughter and sister. Jake brings attention to the fact that the bifocals found in the Mulwray’s pond could have been Hollis’—but is in fact Noah Cross’ (something the audience does not learn until later). Both Katherine and Noah are now brought into the atmosphere, and Jake realizes who actually killed Hollis Mulwray. This mystery has been bubbling since the beginning of the film, and all of the information has finally been captured, at least to Jake, in this scene. This scene is important in the development of both Jake and Evelyn. We learn that Jake is only partially seeing the facts—hence why his face is almost always half in light and half in shadows. We also learn about Evelyn’s secret dealing with her father and sister/daughter Katherine. Jake’s original mystery to solve, brought to him by a fake Evelyn Mulwray, was to find out who the woman with Hollis was, which turns out to be Katherine. From this scene the audience is reaffirmed that Jake will do whatever he thinks is right (since he could not in Chinatown), even if he does not fully know or understand the situation. When Jake calls Escobar at the beginning of the scene, he creates a “ticking clock” which heightens the tension even more. Once Jake decides to help Evelyn and Katherine escape, there seems to be even less time before Escobar can intervene.

The important theme of perception and misperception is also found within the scene. As mentioned, Jake is most always in half light/half shadow—his senses are hazed. Similarly, Jake brings along a pair of broken bifocals, which he believes belongs to Hollis. This symbolizes the fact that Jake is not clearly seeing the situation—something is missing that is not seen until the end of the scene. Though not in this particular scene, there are many instances where the film references the senses, and most notably the eye, including: Evelyn’s flaw in her iris, the binoculars Jake uses when tracking Hollis, mirrors, Curly’s wife’s black eye and when Evelyn is shot in the eye at the end of the film. The running theme or motif of the eye is essential to not only this particular scene (where Jake’s nose is also cut; another sense is lost) but in the film as a whole.

From this scene, the audience learns that Jake is self-aware and likes to be in the right. He is demanding and wants to prove that he has found the evidence to pin Evelyn as the killer of her late husband—even though that is certainly not the case. He is working in a not-so-clear manner, which are akin to his not so morally correct work attitude, anyway. We learn that Evelyn will do almost anything for her sister/daughter Katherine and will go at lengths to explain herself and reveal the truth, even though that is more than likely the last thing she would want to reveal to others.

If this scene was cut, there more than likely would not be a film. In this scene, much of the plot and the mystery of the entire film are finally realized; without this scene, there would be nothing to go on and the film would not be able to function properly. Jake finds out about Evelyn’s past, which then connects Evelyn to Katherine and then Katherine to Hollis and then Hollis to Noah Cross. The answers come full circle, and the mystery is, at least to Jake, solved. Again, without this scene, the film would be completely useless because the mystery would be solved rather randomly and the events that follow this scene would hardly make any sense to the audience.

The significance of the scene is conveyed through the close up shots of the two character’s faces. The audience can see how and what the characters are thinking and feeling; and the tightness of the shot can easily display this. The demand and anger of Jake throughout most of this scene is an example of how the close up is quite effective. As stated previously, the sound is minimal except for the sounds the actors themselves make; this heightens the tension and gives this scene a quality of being on edge—another notable characteristic of a film noir. The lighting in this scene plays the most significant part. As mentioned, the characters are seen in both the light and the shadows. Jake has facts about the investigation and believes that he knows the answers, being in the light. However, some of his information is simply incorrect, being in the dark, and Evelyn has to inform him of her rape; Jake is thus out of the shadows and then into the light—all of the pieces fall into place. He can then plan a way for themselves and Katherine to escape, though that does not completely work out for them.

The “Mother/Daughter” scene is crucial to Chinatown. The characters discover the mystery and the two seemingly distant and unrelated plots come together to create a rather pivotal and interesting scene. The loose ends of the plot are intertwined and the audience can feel a sense of “aha” as the following scenes take place. We become hopeful for the characters to get away, even though that is certainly not the case by the end of the film. This scene is essential to both of the plots and the film overall.

Chinatown - Poster

It may not be the most polished thing I’ve written, but I did have a blast watching this scene over and over again to see exactly what Polanski was trying to say, whether or not there was any dialogue involved. It’s a great scene, and a great film. I’m also a big fan of its film noir roots.


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