Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.
Monday, October 4, 2010
Jack Nicholson is J.J. Gittes, an ethically loose Private Investigator, who makes a very good living specializing in infidelity cases. The first scene in the movie has Gittes observing a client examining incriminating pictures of his wife with another man. When Curly (Burt Young) punches a wall in his anger, Gittes cautions him not to hurt the new blinds in the windows and pours him a drink. He also offers to cut Curly some slack on the payment saying, "I don't want your last dime, what kind of a guy do you think I am?"
After showing Curly out, he finds another client waiting, a Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) Mrs. Mulwray tells Gittes that she knows her husband is cheating and wants him to get proof. Gittes gives her a good canned speech, perhaps to give his conscience some later deniability (and perhaps to reinforce the suspicions) He also insists that his associates Walsh (Joe Mantell) and Duffy (Bruce Glover,) stay in the room as they'll be working the case.
Jake Gittes: What makes you certain that your husband is, um, involved with someone?
Mrs. Mulwray: A wife can tell.
Jake Gittes: Mrs. Mulwray, do you love your husband?
Mrs. Mulwray: Yes, of course.
Jake Gittes: Then go home and forget everything.
Of course Mrs. Mulwray isn't willing to do that, and hires him to obtain some proof. Gittes recognizes her husband's name, Hollis Mulwray, as he's the Chief Engineer for Water and Power in Los Angeles. He cautions her that the job can be "hard on the pocketbook" and when she responds that money doesn't matter, he can't help but smile and offers to see what he can do.
Gittes attends a meeting, where Hollis speaks for Water and Power, rejecting the proposed idea to build a dam on grounds that the proposed site is similar to another site which experienced a disaster when a dam gave way. His rejection is violently opposed, as the area is experiencing a drought and many are desperate for water. One man brings his sheep into the courtroom to ask Hollis what they should drink. Gittes continues to follow Hollis, watching him investigate dry riverbeds in the desert and a water outlet, which suspiciously dumps the needed fresh water into the ocean at night. Gittes associate, Walsh, also tails Hollis and reveals similar activities, saying "the guys got water on the brain." He gives Gittes some photos of Hollis arguing with an older man in the street. He tells Gittes, all he heard was the word "apple core." Eventually they find Hollis out with a young blonde and when the pictures reach the newspaper, it creates a front page scandal. Discussing the publicity in the Barbershop, Gittes gets offended what a mortgage officer insults his line of work. He says, "Listen pal! I make an honest living. People only come to me when they're in a desperate situation and I help 'em out. I don't kick people out of their houses, like you bums down at the bank do." He repeats "I make an honest living, an honest living, understand?"
Gittes heads back to the office, eager to tell the Barber's latest dirty joke to the guys. They try to discourage him, but he insists. He's surprised to find a woman he's never met behind him, having heard his joke, who claims she is Evelyn Mulwray(Faye Dunaway.) Evelyn is not at all pleased. She promises that Gittes will be getting plenty of the publicity that he likes. Gittes tells her there's no need to get tough and Mrs. Mulwray responds, "I don't get tough with people, my lawyers do." Gittes heads to Hollis Mulwray's office to look into the matter, letting himself into Mulwray's office, on finding him out. He goes through Mulwray's desk and papers, until escorted into Russ Yelburton's (John Hillerman) office Yelburton mentions that Hollis isn't the type to cheat on his wife. On the way out of the building Gittes recognizes a thug named Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jensen) and asks Mulvihill what he's doing there. Mulvihill says they shut his water off, and Gittes asks how he knew about it , as "You don't drink it, don't take a bath in it. They wrote you a letter! Then you'd have to be able to read!" Yelburton explains that they've hired Mulvihill to deal with violent threats against the city reservoirs. Gittes makes a dig at Mulvihill, claiming he was corrupt when he was a sheriff years ago.
Gittes heads to the Mulwray's house next, which is an enormous estate, with many servants at work. He lets himself into the backyard, and looks around noticing a small pool, which the Chinese gardener explains is "bad for glass" (meaning, bad for grass). Mrs. Mulwray finds him and claims Hollis is at the office. She offers him a drink and then to drop the lawsuit, claiming that Hollis thinks Gittes is an innocent man. She urges Gittes to lay off the case, but Gittes refuses, saying lawsuit or no, he plans to find out what happened. Mrs. Mulwray suggests a reservoir that he frequents. Gittes finds that it's closed to the public but uses Yelburton's card to get in. Gittes finds police at the reservoir. The officers, Loach (Richard Bakalyan) and Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez,) and Gittes clearly know each other and from past experience together in Chinatown. Escobar refers to Gittes as "Jake" and informs him that he got moved out of Chinatown when he was promoted to Lieutenant.
Gittes explains that he needs to talk to Hollis and Escobar says "you're welcome to try, there he is." Escobar points out Hollis' corpse being dragged out of the reservoir. Escobar and Loach question Mrs. Mulwray. She denounces the possibility of suicide, and when they ask about the identity of the blonde girl, that Hollis was seeing, she says she doesn't know, claiming to be surprised by the newspaper headlines. Escobar says "Surprised?" pointing out that she had hired a private investigator to find this out. Rather than set the record straight, she acts as if she had hired Gittes, but only in order to quiet a rumor. Gittes walks her out of the station and Mrs. Mulwray thanks him for going along with her lie and offering to send him a check to make it official that she'd hired him. Gittes heads the morgue next and talks with a mortician about a recent drowning which occurred in a dry riverbed. He checks out one of the riverbeds and finds from a local kid that Hollis had asked him where the water came in at night. The kid explains that every night the water comes into a different part.
Later that night Gittes investigates at the reservoir, and finds himself being shot at. He ducks into a dry outlet, which floods sweeping him into a fence. He climbs out, soaking wet, when he hears someone telling him to hold it. Mulvihill and another man (Roman Polanski) approach him. And Gittes asks Mulvihill, "where'd you get the midget?" The other man responds by flashing a knife while Mulvihill grabs Gittes. The man with the knife remarks "You're a real nosy fella. You wanna know what happens to nosy fellas? Wanna guess?" while holding his knife to Gittes' nose. He slices Gittes' nose and warns him that next time, he'll lose it.
Gittes shows up at the office with his entire nose in a bandage. He discusses suing over the incident but the conversation is interrupted by a call from Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) who reveals that she had posed as Mrs. Mulwray. She just wanted to tell someone that she had no idea what would happen. She refuses to tell him who hired her but directs him to an obituary column.
He meets Mrs. Mulwray for a drink and insists that she tell him the whole story. She plays it down, but he insists she's hiding something. She claims that she knew about the affair and felt grateful. When Gittes finds this odd, she allows him to assume she was seeing people other than her husband. He discovers that the initial "C." on the letter she sent, stands for "Cross," her maiden name. Leaving the restaurant, Gittes offers her a ride in his car. When she insists that she'll take her own car and go home, he tells Mrs. Mulwray,
"Okay, go home. But in case you're interested, your husband was murdered. Somebody's been dumping thousands of tons of water out of the city reservoirs when we're supposed to be in the middle of a drought. He found out about it, and he was killed. There's a waterlogged drunk in the morgue, involuntary manslaughter if anybody wants to take the trouble which they don't. it seems like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine with me. But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddam near lost my nose! And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something."
He pulls off, angrily. Mrs. Mulwray calls him, but he's already gone. Gittes goes back to Water and Power to see Mr. Yelburton. The receptionist says he's busy, possibly tied up indefinitely, but Gittes tells her. he'll wait as it's his lunch hour. He starts smoking, whistling and humming on the other side of the receptionist's desk. Examining pictures on the walls, he remarks on a picture of Hollis with a man named "Noah Cross." He asks the receptionist if Noah Cross worked for Water and Power and she explains that "He owned it." Gittes seems surprised that one man could own the cities water supply, and further questions reveal that Hollis had also owned part of it, and decided that the public should own the water. Irritated at his questions, the receptionist slams the door and goes to get Yelburton. Yelburton asks about his nose and Gittes says he cut himself shaving. He accuses Yelburton of hiring him to ruin Hollis' reputation in order to approve the dam building and keep the water dumping quiet. Gittes points out that the water diversion would be news. Yelburton claims they divert some water to help farmers who have no legal right to it, naturally resulting in some run off. He offers Yelburton a couple days to think about it.
Back at his office, Evelyn is waiting for him. She asks about his rate, and then about the reason for her husband's death. She makes him a generous offer, to find the details behind her husband's death. He presumes that Noah Cross is Evelyn's father, and asks about their partnership, making Evelyn nervous rnough to light a cigarette when she already has one lit. She has some difficulty saying "my father." She tells Gittes about their disagreement, saying that a dam that broke was the cause along with Hollis insistence that the public own the water.
Gittes finds Noah Cross (John Huston) who says "You've got a nasty reputation Mr. Gittes. I like that!"
He serves Gittes dinner, fish including the head. Gittes tells Cross that he convinced Evelyn that Hollis was murdered. Cross asks about the police investigation, and the officer in charge. Gittes tells him that Escobar is handling it, describing Escobar as a very capable man and adding that they once worked together in Chinatown. Cross implies that Gittes confidence in Escobar (who calls the death an accident) means that he's conning his daughter. He asks what Gittes is charging her and asks if he's sleeping with his daughter. Gittes acts offended and gets up to leave. Cross asks him to sit back down, claiming he's concerned for his daughter, and says
"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."
Gittes laughs, and Cross asks why. Gittes answers:
"That's what the District Attorney used to tell me in Chinatown."
Cross: Was he right?
Gittes doesn't answer. He sits down and points out that Cross doesn't want his name in the papers. Cross offers Gittes double his rate and a $10,000.00 bonus to find Hollis' girlfriend. He asks Cross when he last saw Hollis, and Cross claims he doesn't remember. Gittes surprises him by telling him it was five days ago, and that he has pictures (The man Hollis had an argument with in the street) Cross tells Gittes the argument was about "his daughter." Gittes tells Cross he'll look into finding the girl, after seeing about "some orange groves.
Gittes then heads to the hall of records and discovers, an extraordinary number of land sales withing the past month. He investigates a property and gets shot at again driving through some lush orange groves in the middle of the desert. His car gets shot and disabled and two men detain him while the property owner questions him, assuming he's with the real estate office or the water company. Gittes tells him that he's a PI and was hired to see if the water company was irrigating his land. The owner finds the idea outrageous, claiming that the Water Company has tried to blow up his water tanks and poison his wells. The men knock him out when he takes a swing at them, still mad about them attacking him earlier. They call Evelyn to pick him up, concerned that he doesn't look good.
Gittes explains to Evelyn that the people in the valley are being intimidated and forced out of their land, which is then bought cheap, theorizing that the water supply will be diverted to increase the value when it's all bought up. He then remembers the obituary that Ida Sessions had mentioned two weeks ago and recognizes the name "Jasper Lamarre Crabbe"
Gittes: A memorial service was held at the Mar Vista Inn today for Jasper Lamar Crabb. He passed away two weeks ago.
Evelyn Mulwray: Why is that unusual?
Jake Gittes: He passed away two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land. That's unusual.
Gittes and Evelyn then pose as a couple looking for a retirement home for Gittes father to investigate the home that Crabbe was in. Gittes realizes that all of the recent property purchases are in the names of the retirees here. When Gittes chats with one of the residents, discovering a piece of fabric with a fish head with the initials A.C. as part of the woman's quilt. She tells him it was from the Albacore Club, an organization which "gives them things." He's interrupted by the manager who has called Mulvihill. Gittes surprises Mulvihill and beats him soundly, as Evelyn pulls up with the car and they escape Mulvihill and his partner shooting at them. They go to Evelyn's house and she remarks:
"Tell me, Mr. Gittes: Does this often happen to you?"
Gittes: What's that?
Mulwray: Well, I'm judging only on the basis of one afternoon and an evening, but, uh, if this is how you go about your work, I'd say you'd be lucky to, uh, get through a whole day.
Gittes: Actually, this hasn't happened to me for a long time.
Mulwray: When was the last time?
Mulwray: It's an innocent question.
Gittes: In Chinatown.
Evelyn: What were you doing there?
Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Mulwray: Doing what?
Gittes: As little as possible.
Mulwray: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Gittes: They do in Chinatown.
Gittes asks Evelyn for peroxide for his nose, and is shocked when he takes off the bandage. He notices a flaw in Evelyn's eye and from there, they quickly end up in bed. During their pillow talk Evelyn teases him about his reluctance to talk about the past, specifically being a cop in Chinatown.
Evelyn: So why does it bother you to talk about it?
Gittes: Bothers everybody who works there, Chinatown, everybody. To me it was bad luck.
Gittes: You can't always tell what's going on, like with you.
Evelyn: Why was it...Why was it bad luck?
Gittes: I was trying to keep someone from being hurt and I ended up making sure that she was hurt.
Evelyn: Was there a woman involved?
Gittes: Of course
Evelyn takes a phone call , which sounds frantic. She tells him she has to go, and won't tell him where. She tells him that he needs to know that the Albacore Club is connected with her father, which Gittes tells her he knows. He reveals that he saw her father this morning, which seems to change her attitude entirely. She asks him to wait for her there. He doesn't comment and then follows her to a house. Looking in the window he sees her talking with the servants from her own house, who are now here. Evelyn is comforting the blonde girl, who was supposedly Hollis' girlfriend. Evelyn is surprised when she returns to the car to find Gittes in the passenger seat. Gittes demands to know what's going on, threatening to go to the police. She claims that the girl is her sister, and he seems satisfied and tells her he won't go to the police.
He goes home to his own place and gets a phone call from a man telling him that Ida Sessions wants to see him. He tells the guy that Ida can call him at his office and hangs up. The man immediately calls back and gives him an address adding that Ida begged him to call. Gittes checks the address the next morning and finds a pane of glass in the door broken and Ida dead on the floor. He's surprised to find Escobar in the bathroom with the light out, holding a flashlight to his face when he opens the door. Escobar wants to know why Gittes phone number was written on the wall over the phone, and they called him last night to make sure. They show Gittes the photographs of Hollis with the blonde which Ida had in her bureau. Escobar reveals that he's figured out that ida hired him to ruin Mulwray. He also reveals that Hollis had salt water in his lungs despite drowning in a fresh water reservoir. Escobar tells Gittes that he thinks he say Evelyn murder Hollis and now she's paying him off. He discredits Escobar's theory, and tells him they're dumping water in the ocean which is what they're trying to cover up. An officer yells a message to them that he reached Yelburton at Water and Power and he said some run off is normal and that Gittes has been making irresponsible claims all week.Escobar tells Gittes to have Evelyn at the police station in two hours.
Gittes finds Evelyn is not at home, with packed bags arranged as if she's going on a trip. He sees the Chinese worker who had earlier said "Bad for glass" and Gittes remarks "Yeah, yeah, bad for the glass." The worker agrees and adds "salt water, very bad for glass." which catches Gittes attention. He examines the pool again, determining that the pool is salt water. He points out a glinting object in the water which he'd noticed on his last visit and the worker pulls it out for him. Gittes drives to the house where Evelyn had the blonde girl. He starts dialing the phone and asks for Escobar and tells him the address where they are. He asks if she knows a good criminal lawyer, and when she asks what this is all about he shows her a pair of glasses he pulled from the backyard pond, "where he was drowned" he adds, also mentioning the salt water in Hollis' lungs. She acts shocked, but he demands she tell him the w
hole story, suggesting that she had a fight with Hollis, who hit his head by accident, but the girl saw, and while she couldn't bring herself to hurt her, she could afford to keep her quiet. She denies it, and tells her he knows she doesn't have a sister. She says she'll tell him the truth, and claims the girl, Catherine, is her daughter. Gittes slaps her,
Jake Gittes: I said I want the truth!
Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister...
He slaps her again.
Evelyn Mulwray: She's my daughter...
Evelyn Mulwray: My sister, my daughter.
Two slaps and then he pushes her onto the loveseat.
Gittes: I said I want the truth!
Evelyn: She's my sister AND my daughter!
She reveals that she had an incestuous relationship with her father. He assumes she was raped, but she shakes her head to indicate no. Hollis came to take care of her when she was pregnant and 15 years old. She reveals that she planned to escape to Mexico with Catherine. Gittes tells her not to take the train and tells her to leave before Escobar arrives, suggesting her servant Khan's address. Evelyn tells Gittes that the glasses didn't belong to Hollis as he didn't wear bifocals. Evelyn has Catherine say hello to Gittes, and then Evelyn gives Gittes Khan's address, asking "Do you know where that is."
"Sure." he answers, although he doesn't look pleased about it. He calls Walsh at the office and tells him that Escobar is going to try and book him, instructing Walsh to wait for him at the office for two hours and if he doesn't show to meet him at Khan's address. Hearing the address, Walsh responds. "Jesus, that's in Chinatown ain't it?"
Gittes: "I know where it is. Just do it."
He answers the door when Escobar, shows up, telling Escobar that they're both too late and she took off. He says he knows where she went and gives them another address, but Escobar insists he go with them, so they can bring him in if she isn't there. They get to the address and Gittes asks Escobar for a favor, to let him bring her out alone, as having a minute together would mean a lot to them both. Escobar responds, "You never learn do you Jake?" but agrees to give him three minutes alone. It turns out the address is Curly's house, and the door is opened by Curly's wife who has a serious black eye. He tells Curly he needs his car right now and Curly takes him out the back door. Gittes tells Curly he'll forget his debt if he can take Evelyn and Catherine to Mexico tonight. Curly agrees. He then goes to Evelyn's house and calls Noah Cross, asking if he remembers the figures he offered to deliver the girl, and to meet him at Evelyn's place. When Noah arrives, Gittes asks him to read an obituary, which prompts Cross to pull out his bifocals, similar to those found in the backyard pond. Gittes tells Cross that he knows he killed Hollis in the pond, for stopping his development plans. Cross brags that his plans are already happening and Gittes asks "How much are you worth?"
Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?
Cross: Oh my, yes!
Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?
Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. Now, where's the girl? I want the only daughter I've got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.
Gittes: Who do you blame for that? Her?
Cross: I don't blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.
Mulvihill (with a bandage around his head) then steps out with a gun and Cross tells him to take the glasses from Gittes. He takes Cross and Mulvihill to the adress where Walsh is waiting for him. Escobar also shows up and cuffs Gittes telling him he's under arrest. Gittes attempts to explain that Cross is the guy they're after adding "he's rich do you understand? he thinks he can get away with anything." Cross interrupts, and Gittes reasserts what he said. Escobar loses patience and has Gittes cuffed to the car. Evelyn and Catherine come out and Cross approaches Catherine explaining that he's her grandfather, before Evelyn gets in between them. The two of them struggle, and Evelyn pulls out a gun on Cross.
Gittes yells to her to put the gun away and let the police handle it, but Evelyn yells back "he owns the police." and keeps the gun on Cross. Cross keeps creeping toward the car and tells her "you'll have to kill me first." She shoots him in the arm and gets in the car and drives off. Escobar yells "Halt!" and fires a shot in the air, and then towards the car when she doesn't stop. He's tackled by Mulvihill, but Loach steps in and fires at the car too. In the distance you can hear the horn blaring as the car rolls to a stop. The group runs to the car and finds Evelyn dead shot through the eye as Catherine screams hysterically. Cross grabs ahold of Catherine pulling her out of the car as Gittes stares blank eyed and mutters "as little as possible." and yells at everyone to get him out of there. Duffy looks at Jake and says "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."
Chinatown is a remarkable film and perhaps the best detective movie ever made, but even so it's only a PI movie on the surface. Nicholson's J.J. Gittes is such a fascinating character that we only see a glimpse of, a romantic turned realist, trying to be a businessman. While he appears to be concerned with nice suits, cars and blinds, these things truly matter to him much less than he'd like them to. While he makes a good living off the ethical grey area, he is bothered by those who see him as exploitative of other's misery. He tells the man in the Barbershop "People only come to me when they're in a desperate situation and I help 'em out. I don't kick people out of their houses, like you bums down at the bank do." He offers to help people many times including Yelburton, who he knows is in on the water scam, telling him that he doesn't want to hurt him, recognizing him as a man trying to earn a living for his family, suggesting that he can help him go after the real people behind it, the rich people. He tries to help Evelyn when he believes she's guilty, and more than that he refuses to stop looking into the murder, even after his nose is cut, and everyone tells him to back off.
Gittes definitely has some conflict when it comes to money. Although he presents himself as a materialist, he doesn't truly behave that way. His attitude towards Curly, and Yelburton show us that he has a disdain for the wealthy, which he puts to Cross when he says, "Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?" This is something he clearly does not understand, increasing wealth for its own sake. While Gittes has presumably come from living on a cop's salary, he is able to enjoy things with his success that he wasn't able to before, but is already at the point where he can let money go fairly easily, as if he feels he makes enough. At the end he spells out his dilemma, telling Escobar "He's rich, don't you get it? He thinks he can get away with anything." Gittes likes nice things, but he also knows perceive's a value in work and needs to believe himself, that he earns, an honest living. He has several opportunities to profit nicely, in a way that's no more ethically questionable than infidelity work, but passes up the chances, most significantly, the offer to find Hollis' "girlfriend"
Gittes is a character in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, updated for a different time. He carries Marlowe's acerbic nature, Gittes is more plagued with doubt. He has the same weakness for women, which he recognizes stoically when Evelyn asks him about his troubles in Chinatown, saying, "Was there a woman involved?" and he answers. "Of course." as if there could be no doubt about that. Nonetheless, he follows a similar situation to it's conclusion, with Evelyn as "the girl" this time. When he realizes that all the loose ends in the case are due to wrap up in Chinatown (due to his own suggestion) the look on his face seems to tell us that he knows this won't go well.
Chinatown itself is only seen briefly at the end, although it's referenced many times in the movie. Finally explaining his reluctance to talk about it to Evelyn, Gittes says as his main reason "You can't always tell what's going on." and mentions a time when he thought he was protecting a girl but only ended up getting her hurt. Robert Towne, the screenwriter explained the significance of Chinatown as starting from a conversation where a cop told him that he worked vice in Chinatown, and their motto was to do as little as possible, explaining that working among the various dialects that you don't understand, you don't always know who you're helping or hurting. This dilemma is in some ways, extended to the whole world, or at least in this film, all of J.J. Gittes' Los Angeles, when Gittes discovers that there is far more to Evelyn's situation than he realized. When Noah Cross accurately
Also in the tradition of films such as "the Maltese Falcon" this is a detective story, where the actual case doesn't matter, the water scam is a Maguffin, only serving as a means to get the characters moving with and against each other. Gittes discovers vast corruption, but is unable to do anything about it. Although it potentially affects everyone in Los Angeles, the only consequences of his efforts are the personal ones, happening as a direct result of his efforts.
Polanski spares no detail in creating the world Gittes lives in, using another nod to Philip Marlowe, he shows the film primarily through Gittes point of view, most obviously blacking out the screen when Gittes is knocked out, and showing us Evelyn's face when he wakes. Showing the tedious details that Gittes goes through while investigating he illustrates how intricate the corruption is, not shying away either, when a more obvious threat is needed such as the cringe inducing incident with Gittes' nose. Everything blends together in "Chinatown" Noah Cross is not a mustache twirling villian, but an affable old man, who has no trouble keeping his depravities quiet. While it's easy to point to the evil that exists, evil in Chinatown is careful, powerful, and nearly untouchable, while good is too concerned with the small scale to be effective.
John Huston is perfectly cast here, even sitting at a table eating, he exudes an unspoken power and menace. His presence is large enough that he doesn't need to make threats himself. We can believe that he's worth so much money that he has no idea how much exactly the number is, and have no more regret for killing a man than he does for having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. No one understands his motives but himself. He doesn't become physically threatening until the scene in Chinatown, where his huge hands pulling his granddughter from the car are a menacing enough image to stay with you for years.
Faye Dunaway is terrific as Evelyn Mulwray, the only character with a "pure" motive, yet hiding such a twisted secret she can't help but look suspicious. Her revelation to Gittes about her sister/daughter is a complicated scene and a lesser actress would have a hard time keeping it from descending into unintentional comedy. Posed as the "femme fatale" we again find the traditional role subverted in Chinatown fashion, as she is no threat to anyone, but her good intentions are unrewarded, resting too much on the actions of others.
Nicholson here gives a compelling and memorable performance, proving himself one of few actors that can follow the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum without being derivative or overshadowed by their history, even adding something of his own, the struggle with moral ambiguity and helplessness in the face of entrenched power. The struggle is fascinating, even if it's ultimately in vain. Good is not rewarded for being good or evil punished for being evil, the only thing that determines that is knowledge, depth of resources and preparation.
The "class" struggle is not the real issue here as much as it is a part of Gittes state of mind. We understand that Hollis is very possibly as wealthy as Cross, yet he strives to do the "right" thing. His murder is obviously not prevented by his means though, showing that even wealth does not create an inevitable conclusion. It's Hollis good nature that starts Cross' grudge. Cross is just more ruthless, patient and willing to use his influence. Gittes preoccupation with making the rich guys pay, however, can be seen as severely limiting his view of the situation.
"Chinatown" is a riveting story about the difficulty of truly understanding anything, or anyone, and the difficulty of taking action when you don't have the whole picture. This is a dilemma anyone can relate to, although hopefully with lesser consequences. Sometimes there's just no way to know what's really going on, and terrible things can happen not only in spite of, but even because of your best efforts. There's no more succinct solution to this than "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."