Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Many of the people in Chinatown claim ignorance of the corruption that surrounds them, often with tragic results. Throughout the movie, Jake remains stubbornly incapable of putting the pieces of the case together properly. Evelyn pretends to know nothing about the woman her husband is seeing, in the process keeping information from Jake that may have saved her life. Ida Sessions professes her ignorance to the full scope of the crime she helped commit and therefore cannot see that she is in deep enough to be murdered. At the end of the movie, Jake naïvely tells Evelyn to “[l]et the police handle” it, only to discover that the way they handle it is to kill Evelyn. As Polanski demonstrates, being ignorant of the crime that surrounds you offers no protection from its ravages.
Jake makes several key misidentifications throughout the movie. This inability to see the truth beneath the surface of things serves only to drag him further into the conspiracy. First, he believes Ida Sessions to be Evelyn Mulwray and accepts the case to follow her husband, a decision that leads to his disastrous involvement with Cross and the land conspiracy. Later, he is unable to recognize Detective Loach as the man who tells him to go to Ida Sessions’ house, a mistake that leads to Evelyn’s death. Most important, though, he is unable to see Evelyn as the victim she truly is rather than the murderer he believes her to be, a waste of his attention and resources that leaves him unable to solve the case in time.
Most of the characters in the movie have some dark shame or secret haunting their past, a situation that on a larger scale echoes the hidden corruption of the world in which they live. When people live too long in a city with deep-rooted darkness, they will naturally end up with a bit of it in themselves. Some past misfortunes, like the dam Hollis Mulwray built that later collapsed and killed people, show that even innocent mistakes bring about deadly consequences. Others, like Hollis’s former partnership with Cross, show that even good people are capable of being involved with corruption, while Evelyn Mulwray’s rape and resulting child show how innocent people can be dragged into helping cover up such corruption. Jake’s past and his inability to protect the nameless woman in Chinatown repeats itself to show how impossible it is to escape the evil nature, or tendency toward evil, inherent in many people.