[Essay] Lost in Chinatown: Confusion, Music, more Confusion — Jacob Cunningham

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”. It is slightly predictable to begin a piece about Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) with the most famous quote from the film, yet this line holds a key to exploring the enduring power of this film, and the integral role that Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack plays in its success. Chinatown’s overpowering, almost visceral effect is all down to an evocative and pungent mix of visual, sensual and sonic contrasts that make up the addictively lush, darkly seductive and ambiguously menacing world that is Los Angeles in 1937. Experience of this world gives birth to a sense of confusion, powerlessness and moral disorientation both within the film’s characters, and amongst its audience. The idea of forgetting-it-because-after-all-it’s-Chinatown is about the futility of attempting to do good or save the people we love because, in the face of confusion, contrast-induced disorientation and clandestine channels of power, more harm than good will inevitably be done: the metaphor is that in Chinatown, the community runs itself in a manner unfathomable to outsiders, and is best left alone, even by the cops.

Following in the best tradition of the noir detective genre of the 1940s and 1950s (think Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep (1946), but in Technicolor), every scene in Chinatown is experienced alongside our anti-hero, private detective J.J. Gittes. As such, we know no more than he does, probably understand even less, and share his subjective experience, confusion and moral disorientation as we navigate the labyrinthine plot, which begins as a simple detective procedural but rapidly unspools into far more disturbing territories.

Central to this quite claustrophobic experience are the ways that Polanski sets up various opposing binaries and contrasts. A collection of these are evident in a scene early in the film, in which Gittes covertly watches Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, meet a young Mexican boy in a dried-out river bed. The juxtaposition of elements border on the surreal: the rawness and wildness of the desert-like riverbed verses the monumental Art Deco styling of the bridge that spans it, a symbol of the civil engineering projects undertaken to support and feed the growth of Los Angeles and the luxuries within. There is an almost comical contrast between the traditionally dressed Mexican boy on his horse, navigating the rocky riverbed without much trouble, and Mulwray, whose large, black, hearse-like car rattles uncomfortably over the terrain, and whose period-perfect three-piece suit, watch chain, fedora hat, horn-rimmed glasses and pallid complexion place him at a total disjuncture with his surroundings. This sense of 1930s technology, style, luxury and culture existing in the face of threatening arid wilderness underpins the whole atmosphere of the film. The modernity and glamour of Los Angeles in Hollywood’s golden age is shown to be alarmingly fragile and just one step away from the desert; Los Angeles is a border town and, in the words of Mulwray’s partner and father-in-law, Noah Cross, whoever controls the city’s water supply, the life blood of its fragile existence in keeping the desert away, “controls the future”.

The scene above presents contrasts in a somehow haunting, semi-sensual way – the smooth concrete of the bridge versus the rocks and dust of the riverbed, Mulwray’s tailored suit versus the boy’s rough cloth, the hot metal of the car versus the skin of the donkey. Vivid contrasts are also generated through the way that the Los Angeles of 1937 is presented not as a single coherent entity, but rather as a disorientating melting pot of widely varying and disparate immigrant communities of all sorts. The cheap white clapboard home of Curley and his Italian family, the farmers in the orange groves of the “Northwest Valley”, Khong, the Mulwrays’ Chinese butler who, along with the Chinese maid and gardener, lives in the titular Chinatown district, all make up this world. Even the likes of the Mulwrays who occupy leafy suburbs in the hills and Spanish-revival mansions, or the wealthy white inhabitants of the “Mar Vista” retirement home, seem to live a somehow threatened existence. The only character throughout the film that really seems to be “of the land” is the reticent Mexican boy on his horse, a reminder that until the mid 19th Century California, along with many other southern U.S. states, was part of the Spanish-Mexican empire. The result of flitting between these different communities and cultures throughout the film is that Gittes seems like an alien in any environment beyond that of his own home, and we experience with him an uncomfortable sense of the underlying menace and fundamental unfriendliness of a city in which everyone is, to some extent, an outsider.

Goldsmith’s music is incredibly evocative of this seductive yet menacing, glitzy yet enigmatic, stylishly luxurious yet fragile world. It breathes life into these contradictions, whilst simultaneously providing some sense of continuity, giving the film impact and unity as both a story and as an experience of a place and time. Although Goldsmith claimed that he deliberately did not compose a “contemporary” (i.e 1930s style) score for the film, elements of period jazz play a large part, in particular the haunting main theme with which the film opens. A languid solo trumpet takes the melody against a backdrop of ethereal strings and an old-fashioned tinkly piano, as though the house band were winding down in the Cocoanut Grove  before packing up for the night. The harmonies used in this theme are clearly influenced by jazz standards of the 1930s (some of which are heard leaking out of café doors and the like during the film); the trumpet’s melody emphasises the 9th note of the home chord (so in the key of C minor, a D is the emphasised note), conjuring up an atmosphere of incredible yearning that evokes the old Hollywood late-night glamour of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The main theme, however, also contains distinctly un-traditional elements. When Goldsmith was given ten days to compose the film’s soundtrack by producer Robert Evans, he declared that his musical ensemble would consist of four pianos, four harps, two percussionists, strings and a solo trumpet. The ways in which he uses this unusual collection of instruments are equally imaginative. The main theme opens at first with an extraordinary wash of translucent, shimmering sound, created by strumming the strings of the pianos whilst holding down a chord on their keys, combined with a tight cluster chord of mid-range strings with their mutes on to produce a veiled kind of sound. Above this, high-pitched strings use harmonics and slide upwards in parallel fifths, adding enigmatic, oriental overtones to this opening. This music is not about traditional harmonies or melodies at this point, but about using different instrumental timbres to build an ethereally beautiful texture that immediately engages the audience’s imagination and sends a shiver down their back.

Throughout the film, the music continues to mix elements influenced by the classic Hollywood string sound and jazz of the 1930s with movements that evince how Goldsmith pointedly relates his work to the contemporary musical world surrounding him in 1974: for one cue, the love-scene-ish “Jake and Evelyn”, the traditional pianos are abandoned in favour of a Fender Rhodes electro-mechanical piano. Its warm, bell-like tone and distinctive tremolo effect provide an introduction, before the solo trumpet returns with the melody of the main theme, although this time with new harmonies appropriate to the romantic mood of the scene. Fender Rhodes pianos were only developed in the late 1950s, becoming widely popular in rock, pop and jazz music in the late 1960s (Ray Manzarek in the Doors used one to play bass lines on, whilst Miles Davis decided one wasn’t enough so used two on Bitches’ Brew). Its association with the film music of the 1970s are partly due to Bernard Herrmann use of it as the signature sound of his legendary score to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976. Its use here is evidence of Goldsmith’s belief that “emotions are timeless”, and that he could compose a successful score that would refer to, rather than imitate, film soundtracks of the 1930s whilst incorporating modern sounds and techniques.

Another element that sets the Chinatown sound-world firmly in the second half of the twentieth century is Goldsmith’s use of a prepared piano. The main theme demonstrates the unusual technique of strumming piano strings, however in a cue called “The Last of Ida”, which accompanies Gittes’ discovery of a corpse, these extended playing techniques are developed further; a stark, menacing and percussive sound-world is created by placing material on the strings of the pianos to deaden the notes to a percussive thump when the keys are played rhythmically. This concept of the prepared piano was pioneered by John Cage, a central figure in modernist “classical” music (or “Western art music”) of the twentieth century; Goldsmith’s adoption of his techniques demonstrates how arguably more esoteric sorts of music often end up influencing music, such as that for films, that is composed from the outset for widespread public consumption. Its use alongside other percussion such as a xylophone, ratchet and tom-toms in “The Last of Ida” provides an arid, aggressive counterpoint to the lush, shimmering sound-worlds of the main theme, continuing through music the dramatic contrasts central to the film’s disorientating, addictive effect.

There is something very addictive about the world of Chinatown – the sense of impending doom and fate upon a world that is so stylishly, exotically rendered, although given the continuing sense of darkness that seems to have pervaded Los Angeles at regular moments throughout its history. Perhaps, some credit for this should go to the city as well as the film makers; perhaps Roman Polanski’s nihilistic attitude to the characters in his film is to some extent a reaction to the murder of his wife in the same city a few years before Chinatown was made. This darkness is juxtaposed against a lushness that is most deeply evident in the central, motivic role that water plays, and which repeatedly informs the shimmering musical textures: every time that ethereal cluster of veiled strings are heard, they are answered by another cluster, but this time it is murky, low-range, ambiguous. In this world, everything has its own dark shadow to answer.


Jacob Cunningham graduated with a BA in Music from the University of Cambridge. 

1 Comment

  1. Chinatown is a great example of how a piece of music, from the soundtrack when you listen to it without the film, can make your mind recall a certain image or even a whole sequence of a scene! Another great Bernard Herrmann score, that I think did what you are saying about Chinatown’s score and of course Taxi Driver, is from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. If you have seen Vertigo, do think the score does what Chinatown did to flush out its own mise-en-scène?

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