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
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Chinatown begins in the spirit of the best of film noir, with a private eye getting a case promised to be filled with sex and violence and fueled with countless cigarettes and potent whiskey. Gittes, resplendent in a creamy white three-piece suit, accepts the case from Mrs. Mulwray to follow her husband Hollis to determine if he is having an affair.
Hollis Mulwray is the head of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, so Gittes first tracks him down to a public hearing where Mulwray is at the center of the controversial construction of a dam that would supposedly bring more water to L.A. Gittes is able to learn next to nothing about the man’s sexual proclivities from the meeting, but he does seem surprised that his subject is a mousy, conservative public servant and not a swaggering lothario.
After the meeting, Gittes tracks Mulwray to a dry riverbed and observes him talking to a boy on a horse. The boy is clearly not having an affair with Mulwray, so – again – this is of no professional use to our cynical private eye. Following Mulwray to a beach at Point Fermin Park yields no pertinent results either, other than giving Gittes an interesting case of swamp ass due to a strangely-placed stream of water that may or may not be important later. (Spoiler: it will.) Through some P.I. trickery, Gittes learns that Mulwray did indeed spend all night there… but with the water, not a secret girlfriend. The investigation continues.
Days later, Mulwray is dead and Gittes meets his actual wife Evelyn who – being Faye Dunaway – is certainly not the woman he remembers coming into his office at the start of the film. Gittes goes to meet the new head of the department, Russ Yelburton, who took over after Mulwray’s death. Yelburton is cagey, as Gittes expected, but our protagonist learned more about the increasingly complex connection that Evelyn, her father Noah Cross, and Hollis Mulwray all shared with the water controversy that will lead to Gittes getting shot at, sliced open, and beaten with a crutch before the case is solved.
What’d He Wear?
J.J. Gittes’ gabardine Glen plaid three-piece suit – the second of his suits seen in Chinatown – is one of the closest things he has to a business suit, wearing it for more run-of-the-mill aspects of his investigation like attending a town council meeting or checking in with a public official. He has no need to be his usual flashy self; in fact, blending in would serve him better for outings like that.
The single-breasted suit jacket’s luxurious long and wide cut reflects the sweeping fashions of the late ’30s. The peak lapels extend across the chest to sharply pointed ends that seem to point up to the heavy sleevehead roping on the shoulders.
Gittes keeps his two-button front open, as he tends to do with his single-breasted suit jackets. The buttons match the smaller four buttons on each cuff. The jacket also has jetted breast pockets and a welted breast pocket, where Gittes wears a white linen display kerchief. The back is ventless.
The suit’s matching vest is single-breasted with six buttons down the high-fastening front to the notched bottom, although the lowest button is high enough that all buttons are worn fastened rather than leaving one undone over the bottom.
Not much is seen of Gittes’ trousers due to the long cut of the jacket and the vest over the waistband, but they appear to have reverse pleats and are fully cut down through the cuffed bottoms, which are finished with slim turn-ups.
Gittes wears black leather 4-eyelet oxfords and black ribbed dress socks.
When Mulwray begins his surveillance of Mulwray by attending a council meeting, Robert Towne’s screenplay called for him to be “impeccably dressed”. The finished film has him outfitted in this suit, paired with a white tonal-striped dress shirt and dark red patterned silk tie.
The white-on-white striped shirt has a large collar with long points and French cuffs that are fastened by brass oblong links. His dark maroon silk necktie has a multi-square pattern consisting of white squares intersected into nine boxes by a red grid.
A few days later, Gittes shows up at Russ Yelburton’s office looking for answers after Mulwray’s death. Again he wears this suit, offsetting its uncharacteristic professionalism with a pale pink dress shirt and another red patterned silk necktie.
Gittes’ pink shirt has a front placket and contrast collar and double cuffs. The white collar, like the other shirt, is large with long points. The white French cuffs appear to be fastened with the same brass links as the previously seen shirt. The silk tie has a red ground and an ornate motif of multi-colored ovals; each oval has an outer tan-colored ring stripe, followed by navy and mint green stripes of equal widths with a brown center core.
As a 1930s private detective, Gittes’ practice would likely be closed down if he wasn’t constantly wearing a fedora. In this case, his hat is dark gray felt with a wide black grosgrain ribbon, tied in a bow on the left side.
Gittes’ watch is most prominently seen in these scenes when he uses it to synchronize for a P.I. trick (which I’ll get into shortly!) The gold watch has a rectangular case and expanding bracelet with a light Deco-style dial.
So You Wanna Be a Private Eye?
As a professional snoop, Gittes is always prepared to do whatever necessary to find out what he needs to know. He relies on his wits and, whenever possible, a few extra watches to investigate the Mulwray case as the complexities continue to unfold.
The Watch Trick
Having followed his mark, Hollis Mulwray, to the beach at Point Fermin Park, Gittes observes Mulwray standing by the edge of the water for an interminable amount of time. But Gittes is a busy man, and even a dedicated P.I. can’t spend all night watching a mark who won’t stop staring into the waves.
Gittes returns to his car after dusk and opens his glove compartment, revealing – as the screenplay describes – ” a small mountain of Ingersoll pocket watches”. He pulls one out, winds it, and checks the time against his own watch before wedging it behind the wheel of Mulwray’s Cadillac.
When Gittes’ associates return (after several attempts) to retrieve the watch, it was broken at the exact time that Mulwray left the park, giving Gittes the information he needed without forcing him to wait for another few hours. According to the screenplay, Gittes set the watch at 9:37; when his associate Walsh returned it, it said 2:47. That’s a lot of waiting.
Annoying the Secretary
After Mulwray’s murder, Gittes goes to find Russ Yelburton, the new head of the water department. Yelburton’s secretary, who remembers Gittes from his last pestering visit, is quick to dismiss any attempt to allow the nosy P.I. in to see her boss. Gittes exudes easy patience, explaining that he’s on his lunch hour when the secretary explains that Yelburton is busy.
“He’s liable to be tied up indefinitely,” she desperately attempts. Gittes charms it off as he settles in opposite her: “I take a long lunch. All day sometimes.” The secretary determines to burrow her head into her work, and the game begins. Who will hold out longer?
Gittes offers her a cigarette. She dismissively waves it off, as he taps-taps-taps his Lucky Strike against the gold case before lighting up. Gittes uses the silence of the office in his favor as he saunters around, looking at the numerous photos and humming “The Way You Look Tonight”. He spots Noah Cross, Mulwray’s father-in-law and – apparently – former employer? Gittes could get to the bottom of it, but bothering the secretary will serve a secondary purpose.
Gittes: Noah Cross worked for the water department?
Secretary: Yes. No.
Gittes: (knows he’s getting to her already) He did or he didn’t?
Secretary: He owned it.
Gittes, surprised by this new information, keeps pressing the testy secretary who becomes annoyed with her own contradictory answers and finally after admitting “Yes. Yes! They were partners…”, she gets up and struts into Yelburton’s office. Gittes allows himself a self-satisfied smile as he imagines the conversation on the other side of the door. See what a little persistence will do?
The secretary returns a few moments later, doubtlessly both irritated that her attempts have failed but also relieved to have the inquisitive P.I. out of her hair. She admits Gittes into Yelburton’s office.
How to Get the Look
Although Gittes is never one to shy away from vibrant, flashy colors, his Glen plaid suit is about as conservative as he gets while still retaining his signature flamboyance.
- Black & white Glen Plaid (with red windowpane overcheck) gabardine suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with notched bottom
- Single reverse-pleated high rise full-cut trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- White tonal-striped or pale pink dress shirt with large collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- Dark red silk patterned tie
- Brass oblong cuff links
- Dark gray felt fedora with wide black grosgrain ribbon
- Black leather 4-eyelet oxfords
- Black ribbed dress socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Yelburton: My goodness, what happened to your nose?
Gittes: I cut myself shaving.
Yelburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.
Gittes: Only when I breathe.