“Forget it, Jake. It’s Environmental Politics”

It really is unfortunate that I have to bring some sort of focus to this response. If left unchecked, I would be more than happy to write pages about Chinatown’s dark, neo-noir, brilliance. It effortlessly mixes Los Angeles’ faux elegance (à la Sunset Boulevard) with the burning revelation of its sultry, dark underbelly. Thousands of college students, much like myself, have already written pages upon pages of reverent introspection on Roman Polanski’s expertly crafted and deliberate mise en scène. I’ll try to hold back. Rather, this paper explores the motivations and incentives of the stakeholders in Chinatown. As we will see, all conflict in the film centers around one critical resource: water. Thus, the movie’s stakeholders are best measured by their power, attitude, proximity, and interest in controlling Los Angeles’ aquatic infrastructure.

Noah Cross – the auspicious villain (spoilers) to Jack Nicholson’s hard drinking private investigator, Jake Gittes – has the most to gain, financially and otherwise. Cross, father to both Evelyn Mulwray and Katherine Cross, has staked a heavy land claim in the Northwest Valley. In conjunction with a handful of government bureaucrats and police offers, he has purposefully created a drought so that he can build a new water reservoir for Los Angeles. By first drying the soil out, Cross can buy parcels of land for next to nothing and then sell them at exorbitant prices. While he purposefully hides his real estate deals under false (deceased) names, Gittes slowly uncovers Cross’ careful deception. What initially appears to be some sort of chemical runoff near several beaches, turns out to be just water. Water, which is being purposefully diverted and wasted to maintain the appearance of a shortage. Cross is incredibly powerful, thus, in analyzing his character as a relevant stakeholder, he is the most influential. That being said, he is well removed from much of the action during the film. Physically, he lives far away in his Spanish estate. Still, his interest remains strong and his attitude is fixed. Russ Yelburton, Hollis Mulwray’s deputy engineer, also plays a critical role. Unlike Cross, he was incredibly close to Mulwray. Physically, their offices are adjacent to one another. His power, after Hollis’ untimely death, also grew substantially. Although never directly tied to the conspiracy, he makes significant financial and career gains by the end of the film. Again, his involvement means he has both strong interest and a supportive attitude.

Gittes, despite being the prickly protagonist, has the least to gain of all the stakeholders. Rather, his interest lies in Evelyn. Gittes, at the start of the film, is similarly motivated by money, which Polanski reinforces by purposefully detailing Gittes’ inflated rates. However, as he wanders deeper into the LA Department of Water and Power’s weeds, he becomes infatuated with Evelyn Mulwray. Gittes tries to play their “game,” but fails miserably. By the end of the film, Jake’s only real stake – Evelyn – is dead at the wheel, slumped on the horn. Katherine screams in horror next to her, covered in blood and brains. Evelyn, while having gained a great fortune from her indirect involvement in the water industry, cares little for money. She instead sought only to save her sister (and daughter) from future abuse. Despite being in close proximity to other stakeholders, she had neither influence nor power.

Knowing that water in the United States will eventually (perhaps in our lifetime) become a precious commodity, Chinatown’s depiction of treachery, deceit, and foul play (in an attempt to control public resources) is all too real. If history does indeed repeat itself, more attention needs to be paid to the California “water wars” at the turn of the century (Barringer 2012).

After finishing Chinatown, I immediately turned to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Oddly enough, while tangentially different movies – one features an odd mismatch of Warner Brothers and Disney characters, after all – they both highlight environmental turning points in L.A. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, chockfull of loving references to Chinatown, details the destruction of Los Angeles’ public tram system. In a familiar sort of conspiracy, the main antagonists manipulate the market so that people will buy cars and use newly paved “highways.” Although both films take extensive liberties in fictionalizing historical events, they do promote similar messages of environmental awareness (Zasloff 2010).

As we have seen, even films marketed as noir period pieces can raise questions of environmental awareness. Chinatown inspires further debate and discourse on water usage. Moreover, because it features so many nuances, we are able to draw rough outlines of the stakeholders involved. If precedent is anything, Noah Cross’ power and interest may one day manifest in the real world. If that is the case, I hope more people remain as skeptical and suspicious as Jake Gittes, although perhaps with less smoking.

Matthew L. Landini – U.S. Environmental Politics – Professor Graham Bullock

On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.


Matthew L. Landini



Barringer, F. 2012, April 25. “The Water Fight That Inspired ‘Chinatown.'” Accessed April 23, 2016, from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/the-water-fight-that-inspired-chinatown/

Stork, M. 2013. October 13. “Chinatown’s Historical Mystery.” Accessed April 23, 2016, from http://digital.library.ucla.edu/aqueduct/scholarship/chinatown%E2%80%99s-historical-mystery

Zasloff, J. 2010, February 17. “The Trouble with Chinatown.” Accessed April 23, 2016, from http://legal-planet.org/2010/02/16/the-trouble-with-chinatown/




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