Private Investigator JJ “Jake” Gittes is the perfect protagonist. He is patient, savvy, brave, sexy, playful and smart (the pocket watch trick was great!).
What does he want? Gittes wants the truth and he wants to be respected for making an honest living. In his own words: “I don’t want to be a local joke.” He is a good guy disguised as a publicity loving, dirt-digging private investigator who only cares about money. As the film opens he appears to get off on ruining marriages for money but that’s really not the case. Though he makes a good living, he isn’t in it just for the money. He’s actually a decent guy who values truth and also wants to help people. This is proven when he decides to stick to the investigation even after the “real” Mrs. Mulwray shows up threatening to sue him. When the girl in the photo with Mr. Mulwray (who at this point we are led to believe is the alleged girlfriend) goes missing and Mr. Mulwray also can’t seem to be found, Jake seems genuinely concerned.
The action: At the police station, he goes along with Mrs. Mulwray’s story that she indeed hired him. He could have told the truth to the cops but he doesn’t. This shows he either trusts her, likes her or he needs her for something. Maybe at this point, he isn’t even sure which. Later in the restaurant, he accuses her of being upset about more than her husband’s death. He senses she’s hiding something. He questions her until she “admits” cheating too though she doesn’t say with whom and seems to be lying. Outside he confronts her again about her husband’s murder and reveals his suspicion of a conspiracy, then says he knows she’s not being 100% honest. This scene is memorable because it is when we start to see his determination and we believe he will eventually get to the bottom of it.
How did the director/writer/actor make this character stand out? Having Jack Nicholson play the part certainly helps but in addition to that this character stands out because he’s multidimensional. He isn’t just the cliché private eye stalking people’s personal lives for money. There’s more to him. He gets beat up a lot through the film (including one pretty nasty nose cut) but he never gives up. He is driven by the truth–not just the paycheck. All of this but he’s in no way perfect which makes us like him even more. The writer makes him human and relatable through little things like having him tell bad jokes and talking when he shouldn’t be like when the person he’s talking about is standing behind him and bigger things like struggling with his own feelings of inadequacy when confronted by others (like in the barber shop) who question his career choice. Jack Nicholson is believable as a real person trying to solve a mystery and he is able to keep us there with him, even when he seems to know more than we know.
Mrs. Mulwray is another compelling, dynamic and multidimensional character. She is a beautiful, wealthy woman but she often seems nervous and her actions are suspicious hinting to something hidden beneath the surface.
What does she want? At first, Mrs. Mulwray seems like she simply wants to be left alone, to uphold her family’s reputation and privacy and to come across as dignified. But as the story unfolds, we learn that she actually wants to escape her father’s evil and powerfully far reaching grasp and be free from the secrets and pain she’s been hiding for years. While the situation is dark and complicated, with a child born through incest and rape, in the end we learn Mrs. Mulwray is simply a mother wanting to protect her child.
The action: It’s still so early in the film and yet it’s clear that Mrs. Mulwray is going to be critical to the story when she squirms and then suddenly withdraws her lawsuit threat. It’s natural for her to threaten to sue. After all, this man just slandered her husband and his good name. Right? But to suddenly withdraw the threat so easily seems odd. Later, when Jake questions Mrs. Mulwray about her family, specifically her father, Mrs. Mulwray starts squirming again and accidentally lights 2 cigarettes. This is a smaller detail but shows how nervous she is talking about it. These two incidents show there is more to her story and what she isn’t saying becomes even more important.
How did the director/writer/actor make this character stand out? First, the way in which she’s introduced to us begs for our attention. Because a fake Mrs. Mulwray initially hires Jake to catch her “alleged” cheating husband in the act, when we meet the “real” Mrs. Mulwray we have to wonder what the heck is going on? This moment is memorable because it is the first time we, as viewers, are forced to lose our footing. From this point on small details get dropped like breadcrumbs in regards to Mrs. Mulwray’s character and history. By giving us small pieces at a time and keeping us confused, we also stay captivated. Faye Dunaway also does a great job in coming across strong and weak at the same time. While we know she’s hiding something, she also seems broken and we can’t help but like her.
Final Note: I found these two characters most compelling together because of their interesting juxtaposition. While one does whatever he can to get to the truth, the other will do whatever it takes to hide it. They end up in bed together and while we can’t be sure if that’s natural or just another chess move for one or both of them, it’s a critical moment because all the pieces to the murder mystery and Mrs. Mulwray’s dark history start coming together more quickly from this point. I’d never seen this movie before and I really enjoyed it. I’ve always been more of a happily-ever-after girl myself but the ending was grippingly sad and, I think, really fit the film. Mrs. Mulwray dies trying to protect her daughter while Jake discovers the whole truth. While both characters fulfill their destinies, both do so in vain since neither gets a happy ending and justice is not served.