Chinatown (film)

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poster by Richard Amsel
Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Robert Towne
Starring Jack Nicholson
Faye Dunaway
John Huston
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Editing by Sam O'Steen
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) 20 June 1974 (US)
Running time 131 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6,000,000 US (est.)
Followed by The Two Jakes

Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski. The film features many elements of the film noir genre, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. It stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.

The story, set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, was inspired by the historical disputes over land and water rights that had raged in southern California during the 1910s and 20s, in which William Mulholland acted on behalf of Los Angeles interests to secure water rights in the Owens Valley.

The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning in the category of Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne. In 1991, Chinatown was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

A sequel, called The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, starring Jack Nicholson, who also directed it, with a screenplay by Robert Towne.


[edit] Plot

A Los Angeles private investigator named J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to spy on Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the city's water department. The woman hiring Gittes (Diane Ladd) claims to be Mulwray's wife Evelyn, suspecting him of adultery. But Mulwray spends most of his time investigating dry riverbeds and drainage outlets. He also has a heated argument in public with an elderly man. Gittes finally catches Mulwray during an outing with a young blonde and photographs the pair, which becomes a scandal in the press. After the story is published, Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). She threatens to sue. Jake's been duped by the phony. He needs to find out who did this and why.

Clues suggest a scandal in the city government: Despite a serious drought and an expensive proposal to build a new dam (a plan Mulwray vehemently opposes), the Water and Power department is dumping fresh water into the ocean at night.

On a tip, Gittes looks for Mulwray at a reservoir but finds the police there instead, investigating Mulwray's death by drowning. When the police speak to Mrs. Mulwray about the death, she lets them assume that she hired Gittes, which he corroborates. At the county morgue, Gittes sees the body of a homeless man who allegedly drowned in the L.A. River, while it had been nearly dry during a drought. Gittes confronts Evelyn and tells her that his investigation so far suggests that her husband was murdered. She thanks him and hires him to investigate what happened to her husband.

Later that night, while breaking into the reservoir's secured area, Gittes is confronted by water department security man Claude Mulvihill and a short thug (a cameo by director Roman Polanski), who slashes Jake's nose for being a "very nosy fella." Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, the woman who was hired to pretend to be Mrs. Mulwray, who suggests that Gittes look at that day's obituary column. At the water department, Gittes notices photographs of the elderly man Mulwray had quarreled with, Noah Cross (John Huston). Cross, who is Evelyn Mulwray's father, used to own the water department as Mulwray's business partner. Cross had unwillingly ended his association with the department at Mulwray's request when it was taken over by the city.

Cross hires Gittes to find Hollis's blonde, saying that she might know what happened to him. Acting on Ida Sessions's hint, Gittes begins to unravel an intricate water scandal. While checking out an orange grove, he is accosted and beaten by angry growers who tell him the water department has been blowing water tanks and poisoning wells. Cross and his partners have been forcing farmers out of their land so they can buy it cheap. After building a new (and controversial) dam and water system, redirecting much of L.A.'s water supply to that land would dramatically increase its value. Since Cross wants no record of such transactions, he has partnered with a retirement home community such that many of the elderly residents within (one of whom is mentioned in the obituary column) are the legal, but unwitting, owners of the land.

Confronted by the thugs while checking out the retirement home, Gittes escapes. Evelyn drives the getaway car. Back at her house, the two share a romantic interlude. Jake tells Evelyn about his time as a D.A.'s investigator in L.A.'s Chinatown, where he did "as little as possible." As they lie in bed afterward, the phone rings. Evelyn has a cryptic conversation with someone, then informs Jake that she has to leave for a little while. She gravely asks him to trust her.

Gittes follows Evelyn to a middle-class house; peeking in a window he sees Mulwray's blonde crying. Evelyn claims this is her sister, who was crying because she had just learned about Hollis' death. Later that night, Sessions is murdered. Police Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez) points out that the coroner's report proves that salt water was found in Mulwray's lungs even though the body was found in a freshwater reservoir.

Gittes returns to Evelyn's mansion, where he discovers a pair of eyeglasses in a garden saltwater pond. Presuming that she killed Mulwray and that those were his glasses, Gittes confronts Evelyn, who denies it, but reveals that the blonde girl, Katherine, is both her sister and her daughter; Gittes asks Evelyn if her father raped her and she shakes her head no. It remains unclear whether the act was consensual or not; Evelyn's father later hints that it was indeed a consensual incestuous relationship by saying: "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything". It is apparent that Evelyn resents her father for taking advantage of her in a relationship considered unnatural. Gittes then chooses to help Evelyn escape. Evelyn remembers that the eyeglasses could not have been her husband's because they are bifocals. Gittes arranges for the two women to flee to Mexico and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's address in Chinatown.

Evelyn leaves, and Lt. Escobar arrives, who drives Jake to his friend Curly's house, under the pretext that the address is Evelyn's maid's house and that she is hiding there. Jake gives the police the slip and asks Curly to take the women to Mexico in his fishing boat.

Gittes confronts Cross with the accusation of murder - the result of an argument between Cross and Mulwray over Cross defrauding the city with the help of Mulwray's underlings - and the eyeglasses, which are identical to Cross's own. Mulvihill appears and takes away the glasses that are the only physical evidence. Cross forces Gittes to take him to the girl. When Gittes arrives at Evelyn's hiding place in Chinatown [1] the police are already there and arrest Gittes for withholding evidence and extortion (presuming that he'd extorted the money from Evelyn that she'd paid him to sustain the guise of being his client). Gittes protests that Cross is a killer, but Escobar and the police ignore him.

When Cross approaches Katherine, demanding custody of her, Evelyn pushes him back, shoots him in the arm and starts her car. As Evelyn is driving away, the police open fire and Evelyn is shot and killed. Cross clutches Katherine, taking her out of the car, as a devastated Gittes is comforted by his associates, who urge him to walk away: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

[edit] Cast

  • Bruce Glover as Duffy
  • Nandu Hinds as Sophie
  • James O'Rear as Lawyer
  • James Hong as Kahn
  • Beulah Quo as Mulwray's Maid
  • Jerry Fujikawa as Mulwray's Gardener
  • Belinda Palmer as Katherine Cross
  • Roy Roberts as Mayor Bagby
  • Noble Willingham as Councilman
  • Elliott Montgomery as Councilman
  • Burt Young as Curly
  • Elizabeth Harding as Curly's Wife

[edit] Production

[edit] Background

In 1971, producer Robert Evans originally offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he couldn't better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Instead, Towne asked for $25,000 from Evans to write his own story, Chinatown, to which Evans agreed.[2][3]

Chinatown was set in the 1930s and portrays water department corruption. It was the first part of a planned trilogy written by Robert Towne about the character J.J. Gittes and Los Angeles government. The second part, The Two Jakes, was about the natural gas department in Los Angeles in the 1940s. It was directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990, however, the second film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make Cloverleaf, a film about the development of the Los Angeles freeway system in the late 1940s.

[edit] Origins

The characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross are both references to the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855-1935) — the name Hollis Mulwray is partially an anagram for Mulholland. The name Noah is a reference to a flood — to suggest the conflict between good and evil in Mulholland. Mulholland was the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The dam Cross and the city want to build is opposed by Mulwray for reasons of engineering and safety. Mulwray says he will not make the same mistake as when he built a previous dam, which broke resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This is a direct reference to the St. Francis Dam disaster. The dam was personally inspected by Mulholland himself before it catastrophically failed the next morning on March 12, 1928. More than 450 people, many of them school children died that day and the town of Santa Paula was buried[4]. The incident effectively ended Mulholland's career and he died in 1935.

[edit] Development

Robert Towne says he took the title, and the famous exchange, "What did you do in Chinatown?" / "As little as possible", from a Hungarian vice cop who had worked in Chinatown. The cop explained to Towne that the complicated array of dialects and gangs in Los Angeles's Chinatown made it impossible for police to know whether their interventions in Chinatown were helping victims or being exploited by criminals, so police decided the best course of action was to do as little as possible.[3]

Polanski found out about the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been planning to make a film once they found the right story. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct as well, because he desired a European vision of America. Polanski, just a few years removed from the murder of his wife in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return, but was persuaded to accept the project based on the strength of the script.[3]

Towne wrote the screenplay with Nicholson in mind.[3] Evans, the producer, intended the screenplay to have a happy ending with Cross dying and Evelyn Mulwray surviving. Evans and Polanski argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. The two parted ways due to the dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene just a few days before it was shot.[3]

The original script was over 180 pages. Polanski eliminated Gittes' voiceover narration, which was written in the script, and filmed the movie so the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did.

Polanski originally offered the cinematographer position to William A. Fraker, Paramount agreed and Fraker accepted. Paramount had previously hired Fraker to shoot for Polanski on Rosemary's Baby. When Robert Evans became aware of the hiring he insisted the offer be rescinded. Evans, who had also produced Rosemary's Baby, felt pairing Polanski and Fraker yielded a team with too much power on one side, and would thus complicate the production.

[edit] Characters and casting

  • "J.J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
  • "Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to the screenwriter Towne, intended to initially seem to be the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually revealed to be the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role, but Polanski pushed for Dunaway.[3]
  • "Noah Cross": Towne says that Huston was, after Nicholson, the second best-cast actor in the film, and that he made the Cross character evil through his charming and courtly performance.[3]

[edit] Filming

Polanski appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose. The effect was accomplished with a special knife, which could have actually cut Nicholson's nose if Polanski had not held it correctly. In keeping with the tradition Polanski credits to Raymond Chandler, all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through Gittes' eyes, for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and then fades back in when he awakens. Gittes appears in every scene of the film.[3]

[edit] Post-production

Polanski was outraged when producer Robert Evans ordered the film lab to give Chinatown a reddish look.[citation needed] Polanski demanded that the film be corrected.

[edit] Soundtrack

Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score, but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans, leaving Jerry Goldsmith only 10 days to write and record a new one. Parts of the original Lambro score can be heard in the original trailer for the movie. The haunting trumpet solos are by the Hollywood studio musician Uan Rasey. Goldsmith received an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

[edit] Legacy

Evans says that the film cemented Nicholson, then a rising star, as one of Hollywood's top leading men.[3] This was the last movie Roman Polanski filmed in the U.S. He was arrested and convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1977. Because Chinatown was planned as the first film in a trilogy, Nicholson turned down all detective roles he was offered so that the only detective he played would be Jake Gittes.[citation needed].

[edit] Awards and honors

[edit] Academy Awards - 1974

The film won one Academy Award and was nominated in a further ten categories:[5]


[edit] Golden Globes - 1974



[edit] Other awards

American Film Institute recognition

[edit] References

  1. ^ In actuality, this was the only scene to actually take place in Los Angeles's Chinatown
  2. ^ * Thomson, David (2005). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. ISBN 0375400168
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Robert Towne, Roman Polanksi and Robert Evans. (2007-11-04). Retrospective interview from Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition) [DVD]. Paramount. ASIN B000UAE7RW.
  4. ^ * Reisner, Marc (1986). Cadillac Desert. ISBN 0670199273
  5. ^ "NY Times: Chinatown". NY Times. Retrieved on 2008-12-29. 

[edit] Bibliography

  • Easton, Michael (1998) Chinatown (B.F.I. Film Classics series). Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-85170-532-4.
  • Towne, Robert (1997). Chinatown and the Last Detail: 2 Screenplays. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3401-7.
  • Tuska, Jon (1978). The Detective in Hollywood. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company. ISBN 0-385-12093-1.
  • Thomson, David (2004). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40016-8.

[edit] External links

Preceded by
The Exorcist
Golden Globe for Best Picture - Drama
Succeeded by
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
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