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The Antagonists of CHINATOWN: An Analysis

Much of a film’s significance depends on its antagonist. An antagonist in a story refers to a character portrayed as the main adversary of the protagonist. Think of it as Darth Vader in Star Wars, the Joker in Batman, or Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. One of the best cases of an antagonist—that isn’t talked about enough—is from the 1974 neo-noir mystery Chinatown.


Starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, Chinatown was influenced by the historical context of the California water wars and the conflicts that transpired at the onset of the 20th century in relation to water rights in the Owens Valley. These disputes revolved around southern California's water, eventually leading to Los Angeles interests acquiring rights to the valuable resource.

Still from 'Chinatown'. Photo credit: Yardbarker


Noah Cross


Character-wise, the obvious antagonist of Chinatown is Noah Cross (John Huston). Cross is a wealthy industrialist and crime lord who reigns as the utmost affluent and influential figure in Los Angeles.


In the story, when Cross assumes the prestigious role of head of the city's water department, he exploits his position to undermine water access by sabotaging water tanks and contaminating wells.


The film commences with private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) taking the spotlight as the central character. His investigation unravels a web of intrigue when he receives news of the death of Cross's son-in-law, Hollis Mulwray, discovered lifeless in a freshwater reservoir.


As Gittes delves further into the case, he learns that Mulwray had a romantic involvement with a girlfriend in the past and was once a business partner of Cross. In a bid to unravel the truth, Cross tempts Gittes by offering to double his fee if he can locate Mulwray's missing companion.


As the plot thickens, Gittes realizes Mulwray's demise was not accidental but rather a premeditated murder linked to a far-reaching conspiracy. The conspirators intend to exploit the newly established reservoir to enrich themselves by irrigating recently acquired properties, while callously depriving the Northwest Valley of vital water resources.


The film's captivating narrative unfurls as Gittes navigates a complex and treacherous maze of deceit, corruption, and personal agendas, leading him closer to uncovering the truth behind the evil plots at play in Los Angeles.


Cross exemplifies the quintessential classical villain, with his personality being a chilling concoction of high intelligence, craftiness, and deviousness. His egomaniacal nature and manipulative tendencies plunge to the very core of his being, leaving an unsettling and disturbing impression.


At first encounter, Cross effortlessly wears the mask of sympathy, projecting a facade of kindness and pleasantness. He skillfully deceives those around him, showcasing a caring and loving fatherly figure to Evelyn. It’s a reminder to craft a villain that isn’t necessarily obvious right away.


Beneath this lies the truth–Cross is a malevolent force, a ruthless and brutal psychopath driven by his own desires. His ego knows no bounds, and his lack of trustworthiness and arrogance make him an unpredictable and treacherous adversary. Unfazed by moral boundaries, he is prepared to resort to acts like murder, kidnapping, and framing innocent individuals to achieve his goals.


Corruption


If you were to analyze Chinatown on a deeper level, much of its antagonism is based on corruption, particularly its relation to the American dream. Take Cross, for example, a man who exploits struggling farmers and plunder their most valuable resources, leading these hardworking individuals into financial ruin.


The film exposes how the pursuit of personal gain among the wealthy undermines the promise of a bright future, tarnishing the ideals of prosperity and fairness that most believe in. It’s a story most are familiar with, even with the specifics of the case being so movie-like.


Dishonesty


With corruption comes dishonesty. The film debunks the belief in the existence of honest and trustworthy leaders. Throughout it, it becomes evident that those in positions of power are far from what they appear to be, often causing harm to those they govern.


Take, for instance, Cross, a figure with no official authority but who exerts significant control over the entire city and its outskirts using his wealth, treating people under him as mere pawns to further his personal interests.


In this grim world, any semblance of authority becomes merely a cog in a corrupt machine, where the truth remains obscured, and those wielding power exploit it for their self-interest. Having a central motif or message can elevate your story and benefit you writing-wise. You don’t need every character to fall in line with your story’s sentiment, but having a central focus will enhance it.


Helplessness and Lack of Galvanization


Chinatown is a very dark story with how it enforces the notion of helplessness. No matter how well-intended a character is or the general notion of a good deed, in Chinatown, none of it matters. It’d take an army of individuals realizing the wrong and trying to undo it for any change to occur. In this case, our hero, Gittes, doesn’t stand a chance.

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