Take 12: Chinatown

Jessie McAskill
4 min readApr 8, 2021


In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, we’re getting the scourge of number 12: Chinatown out of the way. As always, there will be spoilers.

For not the first time in this series, I’ll begin with a confession: I found the last act of Chinatown almost unbearable to watch. I know that there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the work, but in this case in particular, I cannot separate the artist from the art. This is a debate that has raged for years, fueled most recently by the vast revelations of the Me Too movement. I don’t have anything unique to add to that conversation, but I can say that on a personal level, it is something I morally contend with frequently. The one fact I can state with certainty on the topic is that there are many shades of gray to the question of whose work should be lauded and whose should be cancelled when viewed in concert with a modernized moral compass. How bad does an act have to be to warrant a full on blackout of that person? How frequent the trespasses? Is one accusation enough for complete exile? There are admittedly times when it’s difficult to make a call on how bad is bad enough to erase the person from my personal scope of culture.

I want to do right by the victims of abuse and avoid supporting individuals or financial institutions who enabled those atrocities. Sometimes it’s easier to pass judgement than others, I won’t ever watch The Cosby Show again because it feels lurid with the knowledge I now possess, for instance. Chinatown may also now exist in that seventh level of media hell.

For anyone confused by this diatribe, let me state this clearly: Roman Polanski, director of Chinatown, is a child rapist. But, you don’t have to take my word for it, because he told you himself pleading guilty to statutory rape charges of a thirteen year old girl in 1977. I personally believe that sex with any thirteen year old is always rape, and that the “statutory” disclaimer is a distraction from despicable acts, especially when the accused also confessed to drugging that thirteen year old.

This was cut and dry before Polanski fled to France to avoid sentencing, bribed judges to avoid extradition, and wrote a memoir where he recounts having sex with sixteen year olds, stating, “everyone wants to fuck young girls”. To date, there are five women who have accused Polanski of raping them as minors. Polanski himself would likely admit to a significantly higher number. Peter Gethers, who co-wrote two Polanski screenplays, describes the director as “neither in denial or apologetic about his life.”

Now bring this lens to Chinatown. A Los Angeles style noir, the film is clearly inspirational to some of most beloved writers and directors in American cinema. I won’t try to argue that it’s not an achievement. There are compelling performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, plot twists, and if this had been directed by someone less problematic, I would have used this opportunity to think about how privatization of water supply is a reality the next generation will be confronted with head on, and how environmental politics are captured on screen.

But it was directed by Polanksi, so turning our sights to the final act, let’s clarify the plot points with the knowledge that Polanski is a child rapist: Faye Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulwray, a woman who was raped by her father and conceived a child. Evelyn goes through great lengths to keep her daughter away from her father, in the final scene Evelyn is dead with a bullet exit point through her left eye, her daughter screams looking on from nearby, and the estranged father/rapist comes up behind her and drags her away. It is profoundly devastating.

The scene is meant to make the viewer squirm with discomfort, to feel the terror and sadness and grief descending on all the witnesses, an evocative measure that Polanski is particularly adept at executing. Rosemary’s Baby is another example of an excellent Polanski film which contains themes of deeply disturbing sexual violence, when viewed with the knowledge it was created by a predator, the horror it sought to illicit is magnified. Polanski understands how to craft monsters, as demonstrated in this exchange between Gittes and Noah Cross:

CROSS (a long moment, then): Now where’s the girl?…I want the only daughter I have left… as you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.

GITTES (with sarcasm): Who do you blame for that? Her?

CROSS: I don’t blame myself. 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. Take those glasses from him, will you, Claude?

Polanski knows that Cross is deplorable, and he identifies with him on that level, and yet, he remains above reproach from critics and mainstream audiences.

The last line of the film, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” suggests that Jake should move on from Evelyn’s death and leave the past behind him. When the film was released in 1974, I’m sure most audience members might have leapt to the Tate Labianca murders from 1969 as the source of that emotion, and while I don’t think terrible people are incapable of real emotions like grief, I do think that is an attitude used to justify all manners of sins. This year, 2020, Polanski won Best Director at France’s Cesar Awards, prompting this reaction from Adele Haenel, an inspirational alternative to “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”