Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, private investigator and ex-policeman
Los Angeles, September 1937
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
While many people – myself included – criticize the ’70s for being tacky with lows such as glam rock, disco, and leisure suits, it was also a renaissance in art, with guys such as Cassavetes, Peckinpah, and Scorsese honing their craft while the Stones put out Exile on Main St. and Led Zeppelin stuck together. Sideburns may have been battling mustaches for facial hair supremacy, but on the artistic front, the ’70s will hardly be duplicated again. The Godfather, The Sting, Network, Annie Hall, All the President’s Men, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Three Days of the Condor, Paper Moon, Serpico, MASH, Patton, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and – of course – Chinatown round out the list of some of my personal favorites that were churned out during the decade.
Chinatown featured some of the greatest talent of the ’70s with Roman Polanski at the helm, Robert Evans producing, Robert Towne’s screenplay, and Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway joining legendary director John Huston on screen. Towne used the factual California Water Wars as the backdrop for his mystery/film noir/psychological thriller. Nicholson’s J.J. (“Jake”) Gittes, the cheeky but jaded ex-cop who sleuths his way through the corruption is the archetype of the noir hero who seemed to have walked out of Raymond Chandler’s typewriter. With a killer wardrobe and wit to match, Gittes was the perfect vehicle for the film’s message.
What’d He Wear?
Gittes sets a pattern for his attire in the film; for his more casual investigating, he wears light earthtones. For his more business-like days in the office or more serious investigations, such as the film’s finale, he wears grays.
After receiving news that he may have been set up, Gittes heads out to find who’s “the big boy” behind it all. As his nose is still in one piece, he doesn’t quite grasp the gravity and depth of the situation and thus wears a light sandy brown three-piece suit with a light red windowpane overcheck.
You’ll notice that, once death becomes a part of the picture, Gittes promptly changes into a more somber gray pinstripe suit with a white shirt and conservative deep red tie. But I’ll cover that suit later.
The suit jacket is single-breasted with notch lapels and a 3-button front. This suit is an exception in Gittes’ wardrobe, as most of his other suits are double-breasted. There are 4 functional buttons on each cuff, although Gittes wears all four buttoned. 1937 pre-dates the later era of bespoke suits, when men began wearing functional button cuffs unfastened to show off that the suit was bespoke.
The jacket also has padded, structured shoulders. The back is fitted with a box pleat and no vents.
There are three external pockets: two flapped hip pockets and a breast pocket, stuffed with a silk handkerchief that Gittes also wore earlier in the film with his cream suit. The handkerchief is a pale light blue with a light brown and cream colored border. Gittes wears the handkerchief well-buried in the pocket so that the blue is hardly visible.
All of Gittes’s suits are three-piece with matching waistcoats. This single-breasted vest has a 6-button front and two lower pockets. Like the others, it fastens relatively high and has a notched bottom in keeping with the fashion of the times. Notched Bottom kinda sounds like a British punk band. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.
The pleated trousers have a high rise, well-concealed under the vest. Gittes likely wears them with suspenders (or braces, you Brits), but we don’t see them in this scene since he leaves his jacket on the whole time. Unlike his other suits, they also appear to have plain-hemmed bottoms.
Gittes’ shirt would be at home both in the 1970s when it was filmed and the late 1930s in California, when it is set. At this time, many men began wearing shirts – especially sport shirts – with large point collars. While wearing one of these with a suit maybe ahead of its time (or simply anachronistic), it works here in my opinion.
The shirt itself is a light brown that I have seen described as “roasted sesame seed”. However, it would take a lot of whiskey for me to start describing a shirt as being “roasted sesame seed-colored” so let’s call it a light brown. As mentioned, it has large point collars and French cuffs, fastened together with gold oblong cuff links.
Gittes’ tie has a cream silk ground, enhanced by a pattern of dark red Deco-style rectangles. This red calls out the slight red overcheck on the suit, making the color gods happy and proving to women everywhere that single men can indeed match things like that. (At least they can in the film’s diagetic world. I doubt that Gittes would have looked nearly as good without costume designer Anthea Sylbert’s awesomeness.)
Gittes’ hat, the most necessary fashion accessory for any film noir hero, is a light brown felt fedora with a light brown band.
Gittes also wears his stainless wristwatch that he wears throughout the film as well as a pair of brown leather plain-toe shoes that we don’t see very much of, paired with dark socks.
So You Wanna Be a Private Eye?
Gittes is a cheeky but ultimately moral investigator who isn’t afraid of the consequences. He may lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead but he doesn’t take bribes and he doesn’t stand for corruption. This sort of hero was defined by guys like Philip Marlowe and the rest of the noir era’s private eyes who weren’t afraid to tell a few white lies in defense of the greater good.
In this scene, Gittes is trying to get some info on the whereabouts of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power. He goes to the office, where he is met by deputy chief Russ Yelburton, a bureaucrat who would someday make a great valet for a mustached Detroit Lions fan in Hawaii. Yelburton gives him the proverbial run-around. At the meeting’s conclusion, Gittes asks, “Mind if I take one of your cards? In case I want to get in touch with you again.” Waving him off, Yelburton tells him to help himself. We see, but Yelburton doesn’t see, as Gittes pockets several of the man’s business cards. We’re not sure why, and Gittes isn’t sure yet either, but he knows it will be useful.
Later, after a conversation with Mulwray’s wife, Gittes learns that Hollis takes walks during lunch at the Oak Pass Reservoir. Gittes drives to the site (in his beautiful 1935 Ford convertible) and is immediately stopped by a policeman. As the screenplay reads…
EXT. OAK PASS RESERVOIR – DAY
Gittes drives up a winding road, following a flood channel
up into the parched hills.
TWO FIRE TRUCKS, one a rescue truck, are at the entrance to
The chain link fence with its KEEP OUT sign is open and there
are people milling around. The reservoir is below.
Gittes’ car is stopped by a couple of UNIFORMED POLICE.
Sorry, this is closed to the public, sir.
Gittes hesitates only a moment, then:
(to the Guard)
It’s all right — Russ Yelburton,
Deputy Chief in the Department.
He fishes out one of Yelburton’s cards from his handkerchief
pocket — hands it to the Guard.
Sorry, Mr. Yelburton. Go on down.
Gittes drives past the Guards, through the gate, along the
The moral of the story is to prepare for anything. If you see a stack of business cards and think you may someday need to get into some closed-off places, this would be the ticket. And don’t be afraid to lie a little.
I doubt any business card could get you a reservation at Dorsia though. Even if it’s bone.
How to Get the Look
Even if you manage to get a great suit like this nowadays, you’ll still be stuck with the fact that, while you may be a cool guy, you’re still not Jack Nicholson.
- Light sandy brown (with red windowpane overcheck) suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, 4-button cuffs, breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, and a box-pleated ventless rear with a fitted back
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with a notched bottom and two lower pockets
- Pleated high rise trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms, probably worn with suspenders
- Light brown long-sleeve dress shirt with large point collar and double/French cuffs
- Silk necktie with a light cream ground and a pattern of dark red Deco rectangles
- Brown felt fedora with a brown band
- Stainless wristwatch
- Gold oblong cuff links
- Brown leather plain toe shoes
- Black dress socks
- Pale light blue silk handkerchief with a cream and light brown border, stuffed into the breast pocket
Good luck. It’s a great suit to pull off, you just need to get your hands on one first.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Chinatown is chock full of great Gittes-isms. Much like The Thin Man, I can’t just give you one from these scenes. Enjoy.
Russ Yelburton: After you’ve worked with a man a certain length of time, you come to know his habits, his values – you come to know him – and either he’s the kind who chases after women or he isn’t.
J.J. Gittes: Mulwray isn’t?
Yelburton: He never even kids about it.
Gittes: Well, maybe he takes it very seriously.
And, of course…
Evelyn Mulwray: Hollis seems to think you’re an innocent man.
Gittes: Well, I’ve been accused of a lot of things before, Mrs. Mulwray, but never that.
Robert Towne’s screenplay is often regarded as one of the best ever written, until I finish mine of course. Check it out.