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

Entertainment | April 21, 2021

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

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."

'As Little As Possible'

source: Paramount Pictures

Theories abound about the meaning of this final line from Chinatown. It's so ambiguous that's almost become personal and internalized for many viewers. One Quora user believes that the key to understanding the final line of the film lies in Jake's statement that while he was a beat cop who worked Chinatown he did "as little as possible." Meaning, that it was job to keep the status quo.

As a private investigator, Jake is tasked with exposing the dark cracks in society but when he's thrown into a case that involves Noah Cross, one of the wealthiest people in Los Angeles, exposing the darkness is easier said than done.

After witnessing Evelyn's murder and the triumph of the sociopathic Cross, Jake mumbles "as little as possible" before he's led away and told to forget about everything that's happened. The final line of the film could just as easily be, "Forget it Jake, they're doing as little as possible" or "it's business as usual," or "the good guys never really win," but it's for the best that Polanski and Townsend went with the line that they did.

Chinatown Isn't A Place, It's A Metaphor

source: Paramount Pictures

Sure, Chinatown is an area of Los Angeles where things can be out of sorts, but that's not what Polanski and Townsend are talking about. Some viewers believe that "Chinatown" is a metaphor for a place where outsiders will never succeed as long as they continue to ignore the fact that it's a place run by the locals. In this instance, Polanski and Townsend are talking about Los Angeles as a whole (and if you want to look at it in the macro they're talking about the whole world). Trying to hold Los Angeles accountable for its transgressions, then, is like a white cop trying to enforce laws in a closed and foreign community that has its own rules -- and doesn't want his help.

Jake is called in to follow the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the whole thing's a set up for Jake and Mulwray. He's used as a pawn to help Noah Cross gain even more ground in the city he already owns. Jake isn't just out of his depth during Chinatown, he's wading in foreign waters. Everything he tries to do to help ends up making the situation worse until Evelyn is dead, and Cross has control of the daughter he sired through incest.

Chinatown Is Chaos

source: Paramount Pictures

How do you live with yourself after you aid in the death of a woman who did nothing wrong? How do you sleep at night when you know that even if you're doing your job you can't actually save anyone or change the world for the better? It's possible that the final line of Chinatown is meant as a salve for Jake's feeling of helplessness as he watches the bad guy win.

When Jake's former partner pulls him away from the crime scene and tells him to forget about what he's seen it's not just a good old fashioned pick me up, he's saying that the police are going to let this slide the same way that Jake let things slide when he was a beat cop - that's just the way things go. To be reminded that "it's Chinatown" is to be reminded of the chaos of life. Things happen here, and sometimes there's no explaining them.

Townsend Didn't Realize The Brilliance Of His Script Until 'Chinatown' Was Done

source: Paramount Pictures

Chinatown is regarded as one of the best screenplays ever written, if not the best screenplay ever written, but Townsend has said he didn't recognize that he'd written a trenchant critique of the upper class and the government agencies that allow them to flourish. He just thought that he had a mess on his hands.

It's telling that he wrote a happy ending to the film that was nixed by Polanski. Townsend was so in it that he didn't realize that the film required a dark and brooding finale. In his book Writing The Feature Script: The Treatment, Sean Hood says that Townsend had an extremely hard time crafting the script and that the first draft he showed producer Robert Evans was a mess:

It has been analyzed thousands and thousands of times in screenwriting classes and textbooks. However, the first draft of Chinatown was 178 pages long; screenwriter Robert Towne took 9 months to finish it saying that ‘… the writing of it was just tough: writing scenario, after scenario, after scenario was just so complicated that after a certain point, I thought I’d never get through it.’ Producer Robert Evans called the first draft brilliant but incomprehensible, and even Towne himself admitted that if the first draft had been shot, ‘it would have been a mess.’

So what does, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" really mean? Is it a reference to Jake's lack of power in the situation? The police's inability to stop a man like Cross? Or is it just a reference to a feeling of hopelessness? It's everything.

Tags: Chinatown | Famous Movie Scenes | Famous Quotes From The 1970s | Jack Nicholson | Los Angeles CA | Movies In The 1970s | Roman Polanski

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.