A 1940s private detective investigates the mysterious death of the Los Angeles Water Commission chief engineer and attempts to reveal and make known its instigator.
Writer(s): Robert Towne
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Co.(s): Paramount Pictures; Penthouse; Long Road Productions
The Story on the Screen
In Chinatown, 1940s private detective Jake Gittes is hired by a woman who claims to be the wife of the Los Angeles Water Department chief engineer to spy on her husband, because she suspects him of having an affair. When what appears to be proof of the affair is made public, the real wife appears and threatens to sue Jake for defamation. In pursuing the mystery of what instigated the fakery behind the first assignment, Jake discovers that the chief engineer has recently died in a "suicide" that smells of murder, and he sets his sights on discovering the truth behind the affair—to find out and expose to the world at large the identity of whoever committed the crime.
When private detective Jake Gittes is hired by a woman to spy on her husband, he finds himself tangled in a mystery involving powerful interests and unspeakable crimes—and must attempt to uncover and bring to justice the ultimate culprit.
Behind the Scenes
As Chapter 5 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story reveals, any type of investigatory activity constitutes a gain action wherein the investigator seeks to gain (and usually make public) the heretofore-unknown information that serves as the focus of the investigation. Consequently, Jake is a gain character whose course of action involves discovering the truth of what he believes to have been a crime. The closer he gets to that truth, however, the more he suspects that the perpetrator may be a powerful figure who considers himself to be above the law. This suspicion colors his endeavor, so that we may state the proposition of Chinatown as:
- One should attempt to discover (gain the identity of) and expose (gain the public knowledge of) the sins of those who think they are above the law, because success in the attempt will expose them to public scorn and uphold the idea that the law applies to all people equally, regardless of their social class.
In Chinatown, Jake finds out who is responsible for murdering the chief engineer and uncovers along the way a lot of disturbing information about the depravity of the killer. But due to the circumstances behind the crime—especially with regard to matters of money and power—Jake fails to expose publicly the responsible party and help bring about justice.
We want Jake to succeed but he does not, which renders the film a fail/disappointed story.
We-the-audience want Jake to succeed, but he does not, which leaves us disappointed. And because our hopes for his success are dashed at the end of his journey, Chinatown stands as prime example of a fail/disappointed story.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).