Jack Nicholson vs. the Dept. of Water and Power

Jack Nicholson knows there’s something funny about the water. Image: Daily Nexus

Chinatown (1974) is not a Feel Good film.

Jack Nicholson stars as 1930s-era private detective Jake Gittes, a cynical and persistent investigator who stumbles upon corruption in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The film is loosely based on the so-called California Water Wars of the 1920s, when water was being diverted from farms in Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley via an aqueduct.

The tension between Owen Valley residents and the City of Los Angeles exploded (pun intended) in 1924, and again in 1927, when protestors blew up parts of the aqueduct. According to the Los Angeles Times¹, the aqueduct had been dynamited eight times by 1931.

The film explores the concept of water rights and ownership, as in: He who owns the water has all the power.

In this case, the power belongs to Noah Cross (John Huston), a man of considerable wealth who, at one time, owned the Water and Power Department.

Yes, you read that right. He owned a public utility.

Jake, a man familiar with the worst aspects of human nature, is surprised by this discovery. He questions a Water Department employee to make sure he’s not mistaken:

Employee: “He [Cross] owned it.”
Jake: “He owned the Water Department?”
Employee: “Yes.”
Jake: “You mean he owned the entire water supply for the city?”
Employee: “Yes.”

Whoa! Now that’s power.

Nicholson wants to know what Faye Dunaway knows. Image: Pinterest

Just as Noah Cross encapsulates the powerful, his daughter, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) represents the oppressed.

We know that sounds ridiculous, considering Dunaway’s character is a rich and stylish socialite. But, like the farmers who saw their water rights eroded away, she suffers greatly thanks to Cross.

You see, in Chinatown, it’s the women who Pay. For example, early in the film, Jake confirms a client’s suspicions that his wife is having an affair. When Jake later visits the client’s home, he notices the wife sporting a black eye.

Jake is a haunted man, dispirited by the murder of a woman he loved in Chinatown. Then, when another woman is murdered, he’s told, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s such a dismissive statement – of women, of justice, of a man’s grief. This is why Chinatown, the film, needs a way to redeem itself.

Fortunately, it does so through Nicholson.

The Water & Power boys play rough. Image: JJ Gittes Investigations

Chinatown needs a character of integrity – or, rather, we the audience want to rely on someone who won’t be bought off, like so many in this film.

Nicholson gives us such a character in a skeptical man who is smart and good at his job. He disregards his own safety in pursuit of the truth.

Jake is someone who recognizes, but is unimpressed by, wealth and status. He also treats women with courtesy, and apologizes if he uses off-colour language in front of them. These things are noticeable in a film that is, to put it mildly, unkind to women.

Nicholson never lets us forget his character takes his job seriously. Even the way he places his hat on his head, carefully and with both hands, positioning it Just So, reveals his exacting nature.

Like any good movie detective, Nicholson gives us confidence that he’ll find the answers. We know we can depend on him to make sense of what we see on screen, whether we like the outcome or not.

Chinatown is a dark, gritty film that may not be to everyone’s taste. However, if you’re not familiar with Jack Nicholson’s work in the 1970s, you’ll want to track this down.

¹Read the Los Angles Times overview of the California Water Wars here.

Chinatown: starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Robert Towne. Paramount Pictures, 1974, Color, 130 mins.

This is part of the Jack Nicholson’s 80th Birthday Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.




  1. I love this movie. For me, I love the fact that Gittes is almost the opposite of noir detectives. Like The Big Sleep’s Marlowe would be on top of it with a snazzy one liner. But not this movie. Rather, he’s getting pummeled by a guy in crutches and having his nose cut (in a rather badass bandage). For me, it makes the character more real and fallible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise an interesting point about the ending. It is shocking and sad, like you said – not at all a typical of Hollywood. Yet it’s not a dissatisfying ending. A person doesn’t feel ripped off in the end. I admire the skill it takes to do that.


  2. Good review of my favourite Jack Nicholson film. It did take me a second viewing to fully appreciate this movie, and boy was I blown away by it. Chinatown is like a fine wine. It’s meant to be savoured!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this film so much, but it never occurred to me that so much of it has to do with Nicholson’s performance. Or the contrast between his respect for women and the dreadful way they’re treated in the film. Your review underscored some great points I hadn’t considered, even though I’ve seen the film and read the script many times. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Ruth! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen this film twice now, and although it isn’t one of my favorites, I would consider it a very well-made, very interesting movie. John Huston is just so despicable and Faye Dunaway is a total enigma. Good point about Nicholson’s character being more vulnerable than the usual film noir heroes. I can’t watch that scene where his nose is cut — it’s too gruesome for this wimp.

    Great post, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Maybe my favorite Nicholson film and one of my fave pics of the 1970s. From start to finish, it’s like a noirish trip back in time (except in color instead of glorious B&W).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember I had to watch this movie about ½ dozen times before I could figure out everything that was going on. Even more so with the sequel “The Two Jakes”. But I kept coming back to it because Nicholson is such a great character in the movie. And John Huston, great director as he was, proved to be such a good essayer as a sleazeball. Good review

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great review! This film is full of plot twists and situations that make us surprised. I loved that you told about how women always have to pay in Chinatown – you can’t forget it.
    Jack is very good in it. He was a Marlowe/Spade quality about him!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re certainly right about the plot twists in this film. A first-time viewer simply cannot guess the outcome of this film (which is always a bonus, in my books).

      I agree that Jack Nicholson had shades of Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade, which made his character even more interesting. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂


  8. WOMEN are treated badly in this film? Cupcake, EVERYBODY gets it in ‘Chinatown”; I regret to inform you this is not the vehicle with which to vent your feminist anguish.


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