The ending of Chinatown is an iconic one that’s hard to forget. In a time when endings were usually more upbeat and happier, Roman Polanski went against the grain and delivered a tragic climax. The ending sees Evelyn Mulray die while trying to flee as her illegitimate daughter Katherine screams in horror. The evil Noah Cross takes the young girl away and who could forget that iconic line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” However, that wasn’t the original ending for the classic neo-noir film. Originally, Robert Towne had Evelyn fatally shoot her father, but ultimately goes to prison. Somewhat more of a happier ending as Katherine would’ve been saved despite her mother spending the rest of her life in prison. Chinatown’s dour ending has been praised by nearly every critic and fan who’s seen the movie, but did Evelyn and Katherine deserve a happy ending?
This should go without saying, but the climax to any film is extremely tricky. A movie can have an excellent first and second act, but if the climax is bad then the whole film is essentially ruined. Why? Because that’s the way you leave audiences hanging. Crowds are investing time and effort into a character’s journey, and no matter how great the build-up is, a disappointing ending means that the screenwriter failed in delivering something satisfying. Obviously, Evelyn Mulray and her illegitimate daughter deserve a happy ending. They’re caught in this corrupt world where even upstanding citizens turn a blind eye to the heinous crimes that happen in Chinatown. Plus, a grim ending when Katherine is going to be subjected to abusive Noah Cross because her mother is no longer able to protect her could easily leave audiences with a sour taste in their mouth. The bad guy wins, but realistically speaking, Noah Cross needed to emerge victorious in a battle of good vs. evil.
The story of Chinatown wasn’t about taking down the corrupt world that was ruining lives. It appeared to be a simple infidelity case that evolved into something bigger. Now, it wouldn’t have been wrong if the original ending stayed in place. We as an audience want to see Evelyn win, and Noah Cross to pay for his sins, but it wouldn’t leave the lasting impression that the sad ending did. The Roman Polanski ending isn’t just memorable because it’s shocking and unexpected, but it really get your mind buzzing about the overall message about Chinatown and the significance it plays that mirrors the real world. Sometimes, there is no justice. It’s a sad reality, but one that’s rarely showcased in films. Studios and executives always try to leave audiences happy, thus the reasoning that most movies revert to feel-good endings, whether it fits the story or not. Seven, another movie was an infamous and grim ending, had an extremely tough time due to the ending. Test audiences scored the film badly, and there were actually times where the studio wanted the climax changed.
Could Mills have resisted the temptation of feeding into John Doe’s plan? Yes, but that also goes against Detective Mills character. Throughout the film, it’s showcased as him being impulsive. Plus, giving Seven a happy ending wouldn’t have made the film such an important mark in cinema. Now, a grim ending doesn’t always guarantee that a movie will be memorable. Imagine if Marty McFly wasn’t able to get back into his own time period and ended up disappearing? It would betray the film’s overall tone despite the high stakes that were introduced early into Back to the Future. That movie is simply perfect the way it is because of the happier ending, and sure, you can complain about Marty’s parents not recognizing him as a teenager, but that’s another conversation for a different article. Point is, not every movie needs a sad ending to make a lasting impact. At the end of the day, Chinatown is a great film and had the original ending stuck, it would’ve been highlighted as one because it’s not exactly something so out of left field that it damages the story. However, the grim ending has made the film iconic, thus boosting the Chinatown name because of the bold risk to go through with such a climax. A happy ending wouldn’t have made the Jack Nicholson vehicle any better. Chinatown’s ending is perfect the way it is, despite the fact that a sick bastard gets to live while an innocent mother dies for trying to protect her daughter. It’s a cruel reminder that the world isn’t always a kind place, and leaves a permanent mark in the history of films.Chinatown
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