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Roman Polanski’s film, Chinatown, is best known by society as a timeless masterpiece in the film noir genre. It is then with great interest that we look at the deep undertones surrounding the plot of the film and the implications it has for the society we live in and the people who inhabit it. The message Polanski is trying to communicate to the audience is especially pertinent to those living in what has now become the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, since the storyline of the plot, along with the characters and themes are especially believed to be representative of the actual events that made possible the provision of water for Los Angeles from the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After careful consideration of the film’s messages, viewers are hard-pressed to ask in what ways specifically does the producer implement nuanced details from the history of the takeover into pieces of the movie. The events in the movie do not completely mirror those that transpired in history, and the characters may not completely identical to those in the actual history. But through the carefully subtle yet extensive incorporation of symbolism, Polanski is able to send a profound message to the reader regarding the city of Los Angeles’s takeover of the Owens River Valley for personal sustenance and gain. Take Noah Cross, for example. His demonstrated avarice is widely assumed to be indicative of the rapacious inclications Los Angeles has had to its geographic neighbors time and time again. Many aspects of this character mirror the way the city is viewed and treated, along with the manner in which the city carries itself and treats the areas around it.
Perhaps the most obvious connection the audience can make between the film and the historical context is that between Noah Cross and San Fernando Valley cabal. The producer portrays Cross as an immensely wealthy individual who commands considerable levels of authority throughout the city of Los Angeles. This character already has extensive prominence to the public and is often regarded as untouchable. Moreover, Cross demonstrates an extreme zeal for ambition as he takes measures to expand the city to further capitalize on the supply of the Northwest Valley. This is not unlike the coterie of oligarchs led by Harrison Otis that congregated to buy up large tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley shortly before the construction of the Owens River dam described in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. Reisner notes that the members of the coterie committed to the land grab came from numerous sectors that would be considered essential in characterizing a functional society, most notably railroad and trolley transportation, media broadcasting, financial services, and power infrastructure. The arrangement is quite aptly categorized as “a monopolists’ version of affirmative action” (Reisner 76). Such a term truly captures the essence of a pre-arranged preference possessed by the members of the syndicate with regard to those investors who were later allowed to opt in on the group’s dealings. Evidence of the manner in which this collusion was practiced is provided in an interview with Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne featured in Jon Else’s documentary film Cadillac Desert: Water and Transformation of Nature. Towne specifically included the detail of the Albacore Club excluding jews as a reference to how the San Fernando Valley land speculators were exclusively of white anglo-saxon origins. The men who controlled these industries stood to make immense gains from being the first to develop in previously unsettled territory in addition to capitalizing off the fact that the San Fernando Valley was essential to the flow of the aquaduct. The social standing and dominance of important industries most likely accounts for why neither the character nor the clique suffered any repercussions for their reprehensible and underhanded activities. Although both stories end in disaster, with the movie ending in the death of Evelyn Mulwray and the project concluding with drying out of the Owens Valley, both figures escape punishment for their roles in such irresponsibly tragic events. Moreover, the producer and screenwriter especially emphasize the subtle manner in which the magnates conducted their operations through the inclusion of the Albacore Club and its role in the maintenance of a senior home as a front for the property purchase. This detail is indeed analogous to details delineated by Reisner regarding the extent to which media tycoons such as Harrison Otis and E.T. Earl published numerous stories viewing the proposed hydrological projects in a positive light while facilitating the acquisition of the San Fernando Valley. In conclusion, the producer creates all of these parallels between the Cross and the syndicate in order to establish and reinforce an assertion that authoritative powers cannot necessarily be trusted in the midst of a conflict of interest.
Another striking connection between the film and the events embodied by Noah Cross is the similarities between the collaboration between himself and Hollis Mulwray and the partnership between Fred Eaton and William Mulholland. Polanski makes this connection unmistakable by having the characters act as former partners in the water company in a manner not unlike the way in which Eaton and Mulholland alongside one another in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, per Cadillac Desert. What makes this even more interesting is how Eaton was the predecessor for Mulholland, much in the same way that the older Cross worked for the water company long before Mulwray came along. Additionally, the director includes aspects of the falling out between the Mulholland and Eaton that ended up being played out in film as the consequential murder of Hollis Mulwray at the direction of Noah Cross. Given these details along with Reisner’s account, one can see that Mulwray’s death mirrors the tarnishing of Mulholland’s reputation immediately after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, owed partially to his inability to please the demands of his former associate Fred Eaton with respect to the price negotiations for the land necessary for water diversion. Instead of acceding to Eaton’s $1 million asking price of his ranch, Mulholland “laughed him off” (Reisner 88). Rather, Mulholland only offered half of the asking price, and in due time, “the two old friends were no longer on speaking terms” (88). It is believed that the purpose of such connections laid out by Polanski is to further emphasize to importance that so few people had in changing the outlook of history for so many people, as demonstrated by the presence of Fred Eaton’s roles as director of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, mayor of the city, and eventually a private landowner of property essential to the transport of water from the Owens Valley. This further underlies the overall corruption that made conditions ripe for the events that allowed for the growth of Los Angeles despite inhospitable conditions.
Last but not least, the third detail that was particularly striking are the similarities in traits between Noah Cross and William Mulholland. It is without a doubt that the most explicit tangent that can be formed between the two figures is the inherent desire to control everything around them. Cross feels the need to assert his dominance over both Katherine and Evelyn along with the city’s water supply and every detail associated with it, including the lucrative land in the Northwest Valley. Likewise, Mulholland demonstrates his penchant for power in Cadillac Desert through the manner in which he responds to the resistance efforts against his aqueduct through the use of police force to achieve domination, responding to the destruction of No Name Siphon by mandating an “ order to shoot to kill” (Reisner 95). Additionally, both demonstrate appalling callousness in their dealings with adversaries despite harnessing externally benign appearances. When first introduced by Polanski, Cross gave off a rather genial demeanor characterized by a calm charm paired with a distinctly disarming smile. It is only when he asserts how he prefers to eat fish with the head attached that the audience first picks up on a semblance of internal malice. Similarly, Mulholland’s diplomatic nature effectively deceives those unwitting enough to see past him for his actions. According to Reisner, Mulholland was initially a conservationist who sought to preserve the areas surrounding Los Angeles by having the “city plant millions of trees” (91). Throughout his career, he maintained his stance on serving the city that effectively rendered himself a revered figure throughout the community. Yet, beneath his apparent selflessness was a capability to remorselessly destroy those who stood in his way. Per Cadillac Desert, Mulholland was notable for saying that it was a shame that the war over Owens Valley took its toll on the region’s vegetation “because now there were no longer enough live trees to hang all the troublemakers” (92). These tangents further serve as a warning that even the most ordinary of us is able to eschew the most basic forms of human decency to further satisfy a means to an end.
Chinatown offers its viewers an insight into the grim reality that characterized the politics behind the management of a growing population along the arid region containing Los Angeles. While many other sources would emphasize the perseverance and intelligence necessary to support such rapid development in an area devoid of the necessary precipitation and distant from significant bodies of freshwater, both the film and the Owens Valley story provided by Reisner give glimpses into how the life of one population was dependent on the death of another. While the resemblance between the two may not be initially apparent, a closer analysis of the traits of the characters and the context in which events occured reveals that both forms of media share similar purposes that pertain around central themes of strife and exploitation. In particular, the villain Noah Cross plays an important role as a symbol for the City of Los Angeles and its tycoons by embodying a force that cannot be stopped from getting whatever it wants, even if the means of doing so are unquestionably distasteful. Near the end of the film, Cross suffers a gunshot wound at the hands of Evelyn Mulwray, yet still manages to summon enough strength to shake it off and kill his own daughter in plain view instead. Mulwray was unable to kill something that simply would not die. Time and time again, the City of Los Angeles, not unlike Mr. Cross, just won’t die.
- Cadillac Desert. Directed by John H. Else, and Linda Harrar, Produced by Sandra M. Itkoff, 2018. KQEH, 1997.
- Chinatown. Directed by Roman Polanski, Perf. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. 2018. Paramount Pictures, 1974.
- Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition. Penguin Books, 2014.
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