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The Image of California

California has been chosen to represent the place of action in a great number of movies which can give us a lot of interesting historical facts connected with political, economical, social and cultural issues. The image of California which can be related to 1930-1940-th is represented in the greatest movie Chinatown (1974)directed by Roman Polanski. In this movie, California is shown as a rather dangerous place where power and money can control any situation and where corruption and injustice are the major features of the society. (Pulver)

My goal in this essay is to discuss the image of California in the movie Chinatown (1974).

The major Problem in California

Los Angeles is a place which has its major problem – there is no enough water in the city. The Water Supply Department cannot provide both the townspeople and the farmers with water which is necessary for their needs. The situation is a serious one because some people who have great interest in making money at water have created an artificial drought in the city. Los Angeles is shown as a city of shady dealings.

It is also known that in 1930-1940 Los Angeles bought water rights by purchasing lands in Owens Valley which is situated in the east of the state. The city needed more water because it was growing rapidly. According to the law, water rights were separable from the land and the authority of Los Angeles decided to purchase farm lands which were situated in the other part of the state in order to pipe water to Los Angeles. These purchases were considered to be a theft because they took water from those people who also needed it. (Libecap 2)

California in 1937 – a State of Corruption and Injustice

California is shown as a place of corruption where the powerful men achieve their goals using their money and influence on other people. The main character of the movie is a well known Los Angeles detective J.J. Gittes who conducts a rather dangerous private investigation of the murder of one of those men who wanted the water to be absolutely free for the townspeople and farmers, a chief engineer of the city’s Department of Water and Power. The detective Jake Gittes is hired by Mrs. Mulwray, a respectable woman and wife of the chief engineer of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. She wants him to find out if her husband has a love affair with another woman. Unfortunately, Mr. Mulwray is found dead in the river and Jake Gittes is asked to investigate this case. It also had become known that true Mrs. Mulwray did not hire the detective. This woman was not Mrs. Mulwray. She was hired by the enemies of the chief engineer who eventually killed him. During a long complicated investigation it turned out that the father of Mrs. Mulwray who had certain goals in making money at the land purchase was the main killer. (Towne)

The plot of the movie is built in such a way that the image of California is shown in a negative form. Noah Cross, the father of Mrs. Mulwray, is a powerful rich man who organizes crimes and shady dealings. He avoids punishment and continues his grim business. The corruption is flourishing in California. Noah Cross buys large land property in San Fernando Valley in order to sell it at a higher price after the construction of Water Supply system in the area he bought. His main idea is to earn much money. He does not think about the needs of other people in water.
Religious issues in the Movie

The movie handles religious issues in the following way. It is not allowed to have sex with parents according to the Bible. (Easton)

However, the story tells that this ban was ignored at that times in California. Human brutality is also shown in the movie. Shooting, beating and slander and libel can be found pretty often in the story. California is portrayed as a dangerous place to live. For example, we can see that a lot of crimes are committed in the city The main characters did not pay attention to religion. We cannot see church in the movie as well as other religious issues. It means that the life in California of 1930-1940 was based only on material values but not on spiritual ones. We cannot see that the main characters pray although all of them are sinful. For example, Noah Cross is a killer but he does not care of it, Jake Gittes did not help Mrs.Mulwray to escape with her daughter although he was a lover of Mrs.Mulwray, the authorities of the city do not care of the farmers who are left without water and have no opportunity to irrigate their fields and give enough drink to their domestic animals.

Racial Relations Portrayed in the Movie

There are no any certain racial tensions between the characters in the movie but the conflict connected with racial relations is obvious. Chinese immigrants live in Chinatown and do not claim to change it. The detective Jake Gittes tells a vulgar anecdote about the Chinese sex and everybody has fun. A small Mexican boy on the horse does not want to speak to the detective because he knows that this stranger can be a dangerous man who does not like the immigrants from Mexico. (Easton)

The above mentioned facts prove that racial relations influenced the life and behavior of the people who lived in California in 1930-1940. The elements of race discrimination could be found in different situations. The violation of human rights was also found. “Money rules the world”. This was the slogan of California in 1930-1940.

Chinatown is a place where only the powerful rich man has a great influence on other people and can commit crimes without punishment. Everybody serves him including the police, state authorities. He is Noah Cross, the Chinese millionaire. He lives according to his own rules. (Leopold)

Political Issues in the Movie Chinatown

The movie Chinatown touches upon some very significant political issues concerning the water supply to California.

The political corruption shown in the movie is concluded in selfish and illegal interests of the wealthy people who do not think of the public opinion regarding the allocation of the main source of water. Moreover, the politicians and the public authorities are bought by the wealthy businessman. The problems of the poor farmers are simply ignored.

It is known that the movie Chinatown represents a movie version of the California Water Wars which were connected with serious disputes of Los Angeles with the Owens Valley concerning the water rights. Such people as William Mulholand and J.P. Lippincott who implemented different effective methods of water supply to California in 1905, Job Harriman who bought a land with water rights in California’s Antelope Valley and created the utopian community, Sylvester Smith who voiced farmers interests over water rights in the newspaper, William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy man who built a Castle with good quality water supply in the semi-desert area and rejected to give water to the poor farmers – all of them have their prototypes in the movie. That is why it may be considered that the movie is closely connected with the real situation concerning water supply in California. (Easton)


In conclusion, it is necessary to say that the movie Chinatown (1974) is a good example of political and economical situation in California. This movie can be used in discussing different historical facts which took place in 1930-1940 in California. It discusses the major problems of California such as corruption, human brutality, injustice, betrayal, sexual affairs, business relations, and other ones. This movie also shows human relations between a man and a woman, between business partners, between mother and daughter. This movie is worth watching and analyzing.


Works Cited

Easton, M. Chinatown. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Chinatown. Polansky, R. Canyon Drive, Hollywood, 1974, Film.
Leopold, T. “My Sister! My Daughter!” and other Tales of Chinatown. CNN. September 29, 2009. Available from:<http://articles.cnn.com>
Libecap, G.D. Rescuing Water Markets: Lessons from Owens Valley. Perc Policy Series. January, 2005. Available from:<http://www.perc.org/pdf/ps33.pdf>
Pulver, A. Chinatown – the Best Film of all Time. Gardian.co.uk. October 22, 2010. Available from:<http://www.gardian.co.uk.>
Towne, R. Chinatown and the Last Detail: 2 Screenplays. New York: Grove Press.