Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was inspired by the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley. The Robert Evans production, a Paramount Pictures release, was the director's last film in the United States, and features many elements of film noir, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama.
In 1991 the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and it is frequently listed among the greatest in world cinema. The 1975 Academy Awards saw it nominated eleven times, with an Oscar going to Robert Towne for Best Original Screenplay. The Golden Globe Awards honored it for Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute placed it second among mystery films in 2008.
A sequel, The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, again starring Nicholson, who also directed, with Robert Towne returning to write the screenplay. The film failed to generate the acclaim of its predecessor.
- 2 Cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Legacy
- 5 Awards and honors
- 6 References
- 7 External links
A woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Ladd) hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson) to carry out surveillance on her husband Hollis I. Mulwray (Zwerling), the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes tails him, hears him publicly oppose the creation of a new reservoir, and shoots photographs of him with a young woman (Palmer) that are published on the front page of the following day's paper. Upon his return to his office, Gittes is confronted by a beautiful woman who, after establishing that the two of them have never met, irately informs him she is Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) and that he can expect a lawsuit.
Realizing he was set up, Gittes figures whoever did it wants to get Mulwray, but, before he can question the husband, Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Lopez) fishes Mulwray, drowned, from a freshwater reservoir. Suspicious of murder, Gittes investigates and notices that, although huge quantities of water are released from the reservoir every night, the land is almost completely dry. He is confronted by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill (Jenson) with a henchman (Polanski) who slashes Gittes's nose. Back at his office, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, an actress whom he recognizes as the bogus Mrs. Mulwray. She is afraid to identify her employer, but provides a clue: the name of one of "those people" is in that day's obituaries.
Gittes learns that Mrs. Mulwray's husband was once the business partner of her father, Noah Cross (Huston), so he meets Cross for lunch at his personal club. Cross offers to double Gittes' fee to search for Mulwray's missing girlfriend, plus a bonus if he succeeds. Gittes visits the hall of records where he discovers that a large amount of acreage in the "northwest valley" has changed ownership. Further investigation there leads to an attack on him by angry landowners; they believe he is an agent of the water department, attempting to force them out by demolishing their water tanks and poisoning their wells.
Gittes's review of the obituaries uncovers a former resident of the Mar Vista Inn retirement home, who is one of the valley's new landowners. He infers that Mulwray was murdered when he learned that the new reservoir would be used to irrigate the newly-purchased properties. Evelyn and Gittes bluff their way into Mar Vista and confirm that the real estate deals are surreptitiously completed in the names of some residents. After fleeing from Mulvihill and his thugs, they hide at Evelyn's house, where they nurse each other's wounds and end up in bed together.
Early morning, Evelyn has to leave suddenly; she warns him that her father is dangerous and crazy. Gittes manages to follow her car to a house where he observes her with Mulwray's girlfriend. He confronts Evelyn, who finally confesses that the woman is her sister.
The next day, an anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions' apartment; he finds her murdered, with Escobar waiting for his arrival. Escobar pressures him because the coroner's report found salt water in Mulwray's lungs, indicating that the body was moved after death. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder, and insists Gittes produce her quickly or he'll face charges of his own.
Gittes returns to Evelyn's mansion. There, he discovers a pair of bifocals in her salt water garden pond and finds her servants packing her bags. His suspicions aroused, he confronts Evelyn about her "sister", whom she then claims is her daughter Katherine. Gittes slaps her repeatedly until she cries out "She's my sister and my daughter!", then tearfully asks Gittes if it is "too hard" for him to understand what happened with her father. She points out that the eyeglasses are not her husband's, as he did not wear bifocals.
Gittes makes plans for the two women to flee to Mexico. He instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown. Gittes summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal for the girl. Cross admits his intention to annex to the City of Los Angeles the northwest valley, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes produces Cross's bifocals—a link to Mulwray's murder. Mulvihill appears and confiscates the glasses, then forces Jake to drive him with Cross to the women.
When the three reach the Chinatown hiding place, the police are already there and detain Gittes. Evelyn will not allow Cross to approach Katherine, and when he is undeterred she shoots him in the arm and drives away with Katherine. As the car speeds off, the police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released, along with his associates. One of them urges, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
- Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray
- John Huston as Noah Cross
- Perry Lopez as Lieutenant Lou Escobar
- John Hillerman as Russ Yelburton
- Darrell Zwerling as Hollis I. Mulwray
- Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions
- Roy Jenson as Claude Mulvihill
- Roman Polanski as Man with Knife
- Richard Bakalyan as Detective Loach
- Joe Mantell as Lawrence Walsh
- Bruce Glover as Duffy
- James Hong as Kahn
- Roy Roberts as Mayor Bagby
- Noble Willingham as Councilman
- Burt Young as Curly
- Belinda Palmer as Katherine Cross
In 1971 producer Robert Evans offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he could not better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Instead, Towne asked for $25,000 from Evans to write his own story, Chinatown, to which Evans agreed.
Chinatown is set in 1937 and portrays the manipulation of a critical municipal resource — water — by a cadre of shadowy oligarchs. It was the first part of Towne's planned trilogy about the character J.J. Gittes, the foibles of the Los Angeles power structure, and the subjugation of public good by private greed. The second part, The Two Jakes, was about another grab for a natural resource — oil — with a thicker-torsoed Gittes in the 1940s. It was directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990, but the second film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make Gittes vs. Gittes, about the third finite resource — land — in Los Angeles, circa 1968.
The character of Hollis Mulwray refers to the career of William Mulholland (1855–1935), the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought Owens Valley water to Los Angeles. For reasons of engineering and safety, Mulwray opposes the dam that Noah Cross and the city want, arguing he will not repeat his previous mistake as when his dam broke, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This alludes to the disaster of the St. Francis Dam, personally inspected by Mulholland on the day of its catastrophic failure just before midnight on March 12, 1928. As many as 600 people (including 42 school-aged children), died that day and the Santa Clara River Valley, including the town of Santa Paula, was inundated with flood water, the result being the end of Mulholland's career.
Towne wrote the screenplay with Jack Nicholson in mind. 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 and explained to the writer that the complicated array of dialects and gangs in Los Angeles's Chinatown made it impossible for the police to know whether their interventions were helping victims or furthering their exploitation.
Polanski learned of the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been searching for a suitable joint project. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct for his European vision of the United States, which Evans believed would be darker and more cynical. Polanski, a few years removed from the murder of his wife and unborn child in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return, but was persuaded on the strength of the script.
Evans wanted Cross to die and Evelyn Mulwray to survive. Producer and Director argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special," Polanski said, "not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die." They parted ways over this dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene a few days before it was shot.
The original script was more than 180 pages and included a narration by Gittes; Polanski cut that and reordered the story so the audience and Gittes unraveled the mysteries at the same time.
- "J.J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
- "Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to Towne, intended to initially seem the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually made the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role; but Polanski insisted on Dunaway.
- "Noah Cross": Towne said that Huston was, after Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film, and that he made the Cross character menacing through his courtly performance.
- Polanski appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose. The effect was accomplished with a special knife which indeed could have cut Nicholson's nose if Polanski had not held it correctly.
William A. Fraker accepted the cinematographer position that was offered to him by Polanski when Paramount agreed. He had worked with the studio previously in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Robert Evans, never consulted about the decision, insisted that the offer be rescinded since he, having produced Rosemary's Baby, felt pairing Polanski and Fraker would complicate the production since they would be a team with too much control over the project. Fraker was replaced by John A. Alonzo.
In keeping with a technique Polanski attributes to Raymond Chandler, all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through the main character's eyes; for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and fades in when he awakens. Gittes appears in every scene of the film.
|Film score by Jerry Goldsmith|
Jerry Goldsmith received an Academy Award nomination for his score, one he wrote and recorded in only ten days after Producer Robert Evans rejected Phillip Lambro's effort at the last minute. Portions of the Lambro effort can be heard in the original trailer for the movie. Today the score ranks ninth on the American Film Institute's top 25 American film scores. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal and filmmaker David Lynch have both praised it.
Goldsmith's score, with haunting trumpet solos by Hollywood studio musician and MGM first trumpet Uan Rasey, was released through ABC Records and features twelve tracks at a running time just over thirty minutes.
- "Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title)"
- "Noah Cross"
- "Easy Living"
- "Jake and Evelyn"
- "I Can't Get Started"
- "The Last of Ida"
- "The Captive"
- "The Boy on a Horse"
- "The Way You Look Tonight"
- "The Wrong Clue"
- "J.J. Gittes"
- "Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)"
Robert Towne's screenplay for the film has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often cited as one of the best examples of the craft. However, it was Polanski who decided about filming the fatal final scene, changing Towne's idea of a happy ending.
Chinatown brought more public awareness to the land dealings and disputes over water rights which arose while drawing Los Angeles' water supply from the Owens Valley in the 1910s. Margaret Leslie Davis, in her 1993 book Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, says the sexually charged film is a metaphor for the "rape" of the Owens Valley, and notes that it fictionalizes Mulholland while concealing the strong public support for Southern California's water projects.
- Best Picture — Robert Evans
- Best Director — Roman Polanski
- Best Actor — Jack Nicholson
- Best Actress — Faye Dunaway
- Best Film Editing — Sam O'Steen
- Best Art Direction — Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell, Ruby Levitt
- Best Costume Design — Anthea Sylbert
- Best Cinematography — John A. Alonzo
- Best Sound Mixing — Bud Grenzbach, Larry Jost
- Best Music Score — Jerry Goldsmith
- Best Motion Picture – Drama — Robert Evans
- Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama — Jack Nicholson
- Best Director — Roman Polanski
- Best Screenplay — Robert Towne
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role — John Huston
- Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama — Faye Dunaway
- Best Original Score — Jerry Goldsmith
- 1975 — BAFTA, Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Direction, Best Screenplay (male)
- 1975 — Edgar Award, Best Motion Picture Screenplay — Robert Towne
- 1991 — National Film Registry
- 2010 — Best film of all time, The Guardian
American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 — AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies — Ranked 19th
- 2001 — AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills — Ranked 16th
- 2003 — AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Noah Cross — Ranked 16th Villain
- J.J. "Jake" Gittes — Nominated Hero
- 2005 — AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." — Ranked 74th
- "She's my sister! She's my daughter!" — Nominated
- 2005 — AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores — Ranked 9th
- 2007 — AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) — Ranked 21th
- 2008 — AFI's 10 Top 10 mystery film — Ranked 2nd