Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown, is a modern classic bringing together the genres of film noir, mystery, crime drama, and romance. The stylish movie, set in 1937, then allows for multiple interpretations as to its main themes. It is arguable, for example, that the film’s story line of incest goes to abuse within families. This important theme aside, however, the main idea presented is one of maniacal greed, motivated by a man’s ambitions to assert enormous power and take control of California’s future. The character of Noah Cross commits ruthless crimes but, not fully same, believes that he is acting for good.

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His relationship with his daughter reflects this distorted thinking as much as his crimes committed to assume control over the Los Angeles reservoirs, and create a new environment in the Northwest Valley with the diverted water. Reinforcing this is how Cross exploits Ida Sessions, Hollis Mulwray, Jake Gittes, and his own daughter, as each victimization is in place to further all his ambitions. As the following supports, Chinatown’s Noah Cross represents how a vastly wealthy man may exert enough power to successfully alter an entire culture and/or society, to reinforce his mentally disordered view of himself as a “savior” of that society.

To appreciate the force of Cross’s character as the foundation to all that occurs in Chinatown, it is first necessary to recognize how his agendas affect the other main characters. In a sense, Cross is a powerful catalyst throughout the movie, and the audience only gradually comes to learn how his scheming manipulates – and destroys – the lives in the way of his plans. This is the mystery element of the film, in that the truth is revealed only through stages, and various characters become victims of Cross’s ultimate scheme. For example, Ida Sessions is hired to impersonate Evelyn Mulwray, Cross’s daughter, and appeal to detective Gittes to find the identity of the woman having an affair with her husband. Sessions is a pawn in Cross’s plans and, becoming aware of the scope of the criminality, she gives Gittes a hint as to who hired her to impersonate Evelyn. It is eventually seen that the pretense was Cross’s means of finding his granddaughter, being hidden from him by Evelyn. What this translates to, and going to the murder of Sessions, is how Cross’s ambitions combine the social and the personal. His mentally diseased idea of himself as the creator of a new environment away from Los Angeles is as grandiose and distorted as his determination to raise Katherine, the product of his incestuous relationship with Evelyn, as his own daughter. Sessions then dies simply because she has played her part, it did not succeed, and she knows too much.

Similarly, Hollis Mulwray, Evelyn’s husband, is a victim of Noah Cross. The audience learns that he is both understanding of Evelyn’s past involvement with her father and, as the chief engineer for the city’s Department of Water and Power, aware of Cross’s actions in diverting water to the Valley. It is implied that Mulwray then recognizes the insane nature of Cross, in terms of his abuse of Evelyn and the environmental scheme, and he dies at the hands of Cross’s agents. Once again, someone too close to the truth of Cross’s plans must be eliminated. Meanwhile, as the story unfolds, Gittes is a pawn in Cross’s game. Meeting with Cross, Gittes still believes that the young woman seen in the covert photographs taken of Mulwray is or was Mulwray’s mistress, and Cross hires Gittes to locate the girl. The detective is then serving conflicting clients; Evelyn needs him to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder, related to the diverting of the water and Cross’s role in it, while Cross is confident of this scheme’s success and only concerned with finding his granddaughter. At this point, Gittes is unaware of the primary realities at play, but the point remains that all involved are manipulated by Noah Cross, motivated himself by his conviction in his rights to alter the entire environment of L.A. and take control of Evelyn’s daughter.

Clearly, then, the manias of Noah Cross drive the story of Chinatown and have immense influence over all characters. Equally important is that his agendas regarding the water supply are similarly ruthless. In plain terms, the plan to irrigate the Northwest Valley goes to depriving L.A. with needed water, a reality of no concern to Cross. In his most important interaction with Gittes, Cross makes his thinking in this regard plain. Gittes cannot comprehend the irrigation scheme and what he perceives as Cross’s desire for greater wealth. He asks Cross how much money he has, and what he could possibly do with more, and Cross’s response indicates the extent of his manias. It is not about money; it is about the “future,” which reinforces the delusion of Cross as creating a new society through altering the environment. It is then arguable that the film actually presents the idea of capitalism as a disease in itself, or a system which may be seized upon by a wealthy man to fuel ambitions illegal, destructive, and not sane. What is clear, nonetheless, is that this is the reality of Noah Cross, and he will permit no one to interfere in his “grand design” to single-handedly establish and control a new environment while harming the old.

It is as well important to reiterate how Cross’s relationship with his daughter, clearly apart from his environmental schemes, is still inextricably connected to those schemes. Essentially, the extent of his mental illness is such that he perceives no limitations to obtaining what he wants. Evelyn insists that she was not raped by Cross, but the greater reality is that, as the powerful father, the incestuous relationship was in his control. More to the point, it is the same idea of himself as entitled to have whatever he desires that is in play with all of his plans and actions. He believes that depleting the L.A. water supply is just because it will enable a new environment, as he believes that he should be the guardian of his granddaughter. This then translates to his utter disregard of the rights of the people of the city, and the rights and feelings of Evelyn. In order to support his own desires, in fact, he tells Gittes that Evelyn is not well and unfit to care for the girl. Moreover, the conclusion, in which Evelyn is killed, powerfully reinforces the grossly distorted mind of Cross. The impression is that her death is unavoidable, as he leads his granddaughter away, and it is “unfortunate” that such things must happen because others interfere with his plans.

It is interesting that Chinatown centers on the interactions between Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, as the appeal of the film is largely based on the tensions and affection between them as the story unfolds. At the same time, however, this is more a movie about one extremely powerful man’s need to assert control over everything he desires, from the child he fathered with his own daughter to the creation of a new environment and/or society. Ultimately, everyone within the film becomes a victim of the manias of Noah Cross, and are killed or defeated by him. The factor of the granddaughter side, then, Noah Cross in Chinatown represents how an enormously wealthy man may exert enough power to successfully alter an entire culture and/or society, and because of his mentally ill view of himself as a “savior” of that society.

  • Evans, R. (Producer), Polanski, R. (Director). (1974). Chinatown [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.