'Forget It, Jake, It's Chinatown:' What The Movie Line Means

By | April 19, 2021

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American actor Jack Nicholson on the set of Chinatown, written and directed by Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski. (Photo by Paramount pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

"Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," uttered by Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the final moments of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, is easily one of the most chilling film moments that audiences have ever witnessed. It's not terrifying in the way that a horror movie is, instead it casts more of an existential dread over the viewer. The line doesn't just sum up the lack of resolution of the film, but it's a phrase that sums up the emptiness that many people find when they search for the meaning behind something terrible.

Brought to life by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, Chinatown is perhaps the film of the 1970s. It sums up America's contempt for bureaucracy and the paranoia simmering in American cities in the back half of the Nixon administration.

That's really just a guess at the meaning behind this well known line. Polanski has never really spoken about it all that much and screenwriter Robert Towne is likewise mum on the subject. Film fans everywhere have shared a variety of opinions about this final line of Chinatown, and while many of the theories are fascinating it's likely that we'll never know what the line means to the filmmakers. So what does the line really mean?

Since the line is somewhat about the futility of seeking an explanation, a valid answer might be "Forget it -- it's Chinatown." Valid, but annoying. We'll dig a little deeper.

Polanski Changed The Ending To The Script

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source: Paramount Pictures

It seems crazy now, but the original ending of Chinatown was supposed to be upbeat. Not cheery, but Jake Gittes would get his man and Evelyn Mulwray would escape from land baron Noah Cross with her controversial daughter. Roman Polanski refused to give the film a happy ending. It was only about five years after the murder of Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family. Polanski wasn't about to send everyone home on a happy note.

Polanski knew that for Chinatown to be special that Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) had to die so he and Townsend added one more scene to an already lengthy script. After Evelyn explains that her sister is also her daughter (in other words, a product of incest), they try to escape from Los Angeles after shooting Noah Cross in the arm. Evelyn is gunned down by police while Jake is held back. The film ends on the site of this tragic loss with the phrase, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Polanski later said that if he hadn't given the film its downer ending that, "We wouldn't be sitting around talking about it today."