Chinatown’s most innovative scene is its ending. In this final scene, Polanski and the cast use a variety of techniques to make the audience feel as though it is actually experiencing the unfolding tragedy. The night setting serves as an echo of the city’s pervasive corruption and creates an odd intimacy as the characters gather in the available light. The camera remains consistently at eye level, with few sudden jumps and no extreme close-ups, mimicking the vision of someone actually standing alongside the characters. Some shots are framed by characters’ shoulders and the sides of heads, creating the feeling that we are in the middle of the crowd onscreen.
Jake, whom the audience has come to identify with over the course of the movie, is denied the successful conclusion often expected of a film’s protagonist. He is forced to betray the woman he was trying to protect, and when Jake attempts to fulfill his traditional role as the cinematic private detective and explain the case he has just solved to the authorities, he is entirely ignored. Because Jake’s attempts to explain the truth are so ineffectual and so frequently interrupted, and because Cross is so effective and composed, the audience momentarily loses its identification with Jake’s point of view, identifying instead with the corrupt social structure itself. Jake’s arguments are desperate, clearly those of a man who knows he holds the weaker ground, while Cross speaks calmly and warmly, as if his sincerity and truthfulness are givens.
Cross is more implacable than ever in this scene. Even when talking to Escobar, his eyes scan continually for any sign of Evelyn and Katherine, zeroing in on them almost immediately. Cross never raises his voice to Evelyn, even when she shoots him in the arm, because he knows he does not need to. He tells Evelyn that the only way to keep him from getting what he wants is to kill him, a release that Polanski never provides. Instead, the movie ends with Cross gathering Katherine up and spiriting her away, achieving a victory that should have belonged to Jake.
The way Cross finally triumphs is the most devastating part of the scene. Escobar lifts a gun to shoot at Evelyn’s car as she drives away and Jake performs the seemingly heroic act of wresting the weapon from him, attempting for a moment to take back the control denied him throughout the movie. Jake’s mistake, though, becomes apparent moments later. Escobar shot twice at the sky and even afterward only aimed for the car’s wheel, clearly intent on interrupting the getaway in the safest way possible. Loach, however, fires into the car—intentionally or not—and Evelyn is killed, shot through the head and eye. The car rolls to a stop as Evelyn’s head falls on the horn, blaring it just as she did earlier in the movie, outside of the safe house with Jake. The image of her destroyed eye is the culmination of the film’s assault on the expectations of the viewer.