Man with Knife: “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.”
Theses are the words the Man with Knife speaks before he slices Jake’s nose. These lines are a warning to Jake to stop trespassing at the reservoir, but they serve as a broader warning about looking too fervently for the truth behind appearances. Throughout the film, the audience learns that Jake’s problems stem from much more than his willingness to climb over fences. Unlike the majority of characters in the movie, Jake cannot ignore all the corruption around him. From shadowy Chinatown to the brighter areas of Los Angeles, authority figures see the public as something to manipulate and control, killing or beating into submission anyone foolish enough to investigate the larger pattern of corruption. Noah Cross murders Hollis Mulwray because Hollis attempted to unveil the corruption behind the new dam project. Ida Sessions, though initially part of the conspiracy, dies when she oversteps her bounds by talking to Jake. The police shoot Evelyn Mulwray, who led a silent yet relatively safe existence during the previous fifteen years, only after Jake intrudes on her life. Jake suffers a more subtle punishment, living with the knowledge that he not only failed to protect Evelyn but, through his nosiness, caused her death.
Noah Cross: “’Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Though Noah Cross is talking about himself during his lunch with Jake at the Albacore Club, the line also pertains to everyone who holds a position of power in the film. The Albacore Club serves as a perfect example. Though the club is a front for large-scale corruption, the public sees only a gentlemen’s social club of long standing that gives generously to those in need.. Similarly, the Water Department, which is actually engineering the drought it is supposed to be fighting, is seen as an organization that has helped Los Angeles grow from the desert into the city it is today. The district attorney in Chinatown, a pawn of shadowy organizations who teaches the police to ignore the crimes they’re supposed to protect the people from, has become firmly entrenched in a position of power and respect.
This line also addresses the public’s willingness to give respect and admiration to organizations simply because they’ve become used to them. Given enough time and regular exposure, people will let even the most shocking deeds become a part of their landscape, allowing those who practice such activities total freedom from interference. Neither the death of her first boss nor a detective coming to question her second boss makes Russ Yelburton’s secretary doubt the practices of a venerable institution like the Water Department. In the final scene, the police immediately believe the older, well-established Noah Cross over the younger, less successful Jake. Even Lieutenant Escobar, a basically honest man, ignores the corruption. He treats power with reverence, not questioning Cross and instead warning Jake to leave for his own good because Escobar knows that corruption has been going on too long for anyone to put an end to it.
Evelyn: “She’s my daughter.”
[Gittes slaps Evelyn.]
Gittes: “I said I want the truth!”
Evelyn: “She’s my sister. . . .”
Evelyn: “She’s my daughter. . . .”
Evelyn: “My sister, my daughter.”
Gittes: “I said I want the truth!”
Evelyn: “She’s my sister AND my daughter!”
This exchange, which occurs after Jake confronts Evelyn with what he thinks is the truth, works on several levels. First, the unexpected violence of the scene comes as a shocking payoff for the tension in the film between Jake’s frustration and Evelyn’s secret. Second, it shows Jake’s willingness to use violence against women. In Jake we see a glimpse of the darkness Cross embraces, as well as a sincere remorse when Jake realizes how wrong his actions have been. Third, the dialogue shows the complicated nature of truth. In this scene Jake is convinced that Evelyn is lying to him, when in fact she has already told him the truth: Katherine is indeed Evelyn’s sister. The near desperation with which Jake pushes Evelyn to confess is an expression of his fears and anxieties about being completely lost amidst the lies that surround him. Jake’s anger at Evelyn’s response comes not just from her reticence, but from the way her answer transforms the exit he has created for himself into another turn in the investigation.
Noah Cross: “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they’re capable of anything.”
This is the explanation Noah Cross gives Jake during their final confrontation at the Mulwray mansion. This line suggests there is evil in everyone’s heart and that given the right provocation, anyone is capable of committing a heinous crime. But on a deeper level, Cross doesn’t mean what he says in the slightest. The calm and even tone of Cross’s voice suggests that he sees his actions as reasonable and understandable indulgences—an even more sinister facet of his character.
Cross’s words are applicable to many of the conflicted characters in the film. Russ Yelburton, a family man with a good job, is driven to cover up the murder of a man he genuinely liked in the name of greater ambition. Though Ida Sessions swore she didn’t know Hollis Mulwray would end up dead, she certainly knew an innocent man would be ruined. Nonetheless, she helped with the scheme for her own financial gain. Evelyn keeps Katherine a virtual prisoner in the name of protecting her, and Jake himself abuses an innocent woman. Lieutenant Escobar, who seems to have as great a dislike for Chinatown as Jake does, helps carry the area’s rules beyond its borders by not attempting to question Cross.
Walsh: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
This line from the final scene, which Walsh speaks in a sympathetic voice as he leads Jake away from Evelyn’s dead body, sums up one of the film’s major themes. Throughout the film, several characters suggest that Chinatown is a place to be avoided at all costs. Chinatown is a place where corruption is the status quo and where regular people are forced into silence. Walsh suggests that Evelyn and Jake knew the rules when they went to Chinatown and should have known the story would end as it did. The best Jake can do is regret his foolish mistake and leave as soon as possible.
The spirit of Chinatown is everywhere in Los Angeles. The city’s subtly treacherous new chief engineer, Russ Yelburton, is a fair match for Chinatown’s more openly corrupt district attorney. Evelyn Mulwray is just as vulnerable to abuse by powerful men as was the woman Jake once knew in Chinatown.