Aaron Hendrix’s review published on Letterboxd:
Hollis was always fascinated by tide pools. You know what he used to say?...That's where life begins!
(Part two of my analysis of the corruption/vitality connotations of water in Chinatown and Thief respectively.)
In this film, we see the negative of Thief’s positive. Water, here, connotes danger, corruption, and – at its most horrific – death. Since I have already discussed the newspapers and dam proposal scene in my review for the film earlier, I, instead, want to focus on five key scenes, with special attention paid toward the climax of the film. The first scene of import is when private eye J.J. Gittes investigates Mrs. Mulwray’s backyard as he tries to get ahold of Mr. Mulwray. A garden worker is tending to the koi pond in the yard and tells Mr. Gittes that it’s “Bad for the grass.” The briny water, which has begun to leak out of the pool, is killing the grass around it. Subtly, Polanski has ironically linked water, an image associated with vitality, with death and corruption. And this link is reinforced over and over.
Just a few minutes later in the film, Hollis Mulwray washes up in a sewage channel beside the L.A. river. At the morgue, a sarcastic mortician remarks on the irony of the situation, “Middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.!”v The autopsy finds saltwater pooling in the victim’s lungs from which the mortician concludes that Mulwray was drunk, fell into a river, and drowned. However, the L.A. river is dry. Once more, water is linked to death, not vitality. In Chinatown, it seems, we have landed on the Hades side of the River Styx. The third scene of prominence is when Claude and his friend – played by director Roman Polanski – threaten Gittes by the same sewage outlet channel that poor Mr. Mulwray was flushed down. In this scene, we see the first burst of on-screen violence, which has lay dormant for most of the film. Polanski chides, “You know what happens to nosey fellas?...Wanna guess?...They lose their noses!”v And with the flick of the wrist, Polanski lets loose a spatter of crimson blood across Gittes’ face. Where we saw the corruption and death of water in the previous two scenes, this is the first explicit demonstration of the danger inherent in water.
Before we turn to the final scene of importance here, I think it is important to note the Biblical reference inherent in our antagonist’s name: Noah Cross. Noah, the Biblical figure, of course, preserved life through the Ark in the face of floods which threatened to wipe out life totally. Chinatown’s Noah is a sadistic, power-hungry rapist who’s pursuit of financial gain ends up killing three.
Now, in that final scene, Noah and Gittes have a terse exchange that really digs into the link between water, death, and life in the film. Gittes confronts Noah saying, “The coroner’s report showed Mulwray had saltwater in his lungs.” With the jig up, Noah begins to go off on a tangent that seems utterly insignificant at first, but in retrospect reveals his view of water, which – crucially – runs contrary to the film’s concept of it. Noah notes, “Hollis was always fascinated by tide pools. You know what he used to say?...That’s where life begins!” To Noah, water is the forward movement of life; it is the potential for new life. In this worldview, he is blind to the corrupting, deadly power of water. This forward thinking (that is with an eye to the future, not progressive) attitude is epitomized in his next line. After J.J. Gittes asks, “What can you buy [with the money you’ll make by irrigating the land]?” Noah booms, “The FUTURE, Mr. Gittes! The future.” He then asks for his second daughter. Noah is so obsessed with the continuation of life after his own death – materialized in his second daughter – that he is willing to do the unspeakable: murder, rape, and misusing government resources to make easy money.