Chinatown: Nicholson is great, Huston is iconic and Dunaway’s at her greatest in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Neo-noir classic

Chinatown(1974), directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston, is one of those rare gems from New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s, whose appeal remains undiminished even after 4 decades

(Spoilers are included)

Post the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system in the early 1960s, there are two major instances of  studio resurrection that’s part of Hollywood lore. First, when Richard D. Zanuck , the production head of Twentieth Century-Fox and the son of the legendary studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, rescued the studio (which was in shambles after the failure of Taylor-Burton starrer Cleopatra(1963)) with the success of  The Sound of Music(1965).  The second, and in one of the biggest turnarounds in the fortunes of a studio in movie history, when Robert Evans took over the reins of Paramount Pictures, which was at the bottom of the heap , and turned it into the number one studio in town- through a slew of films that were commercially successful as well as representing a new artistic peak in American cinema. Paramount studios, which was one of the most prominent studios during Hollywood’s golden age was sold to the conglomerate Gulf & Western for a measly price of less than a million dollars in 1966. Charlie Bluhdorn, the chairman of Gulf & Western, hired Robert Evans to run the studio. Evans was a failed actor turned wannabe producer, who was brought to Bluhdorn’s attention through an article on Evans written by New York times journalist Peter Bart. Evans’ appointment met with universal derision, mainly due to his lack of experience for the job. But Evans was undeterred. He first  hired Peter Bart as his assistant and they set out to rebuild the studio. Both Evans and Bart realized that the old days of glamorous stars and big roadshow productions were over. They were going to look for cutting edge material  and new young directors for their productions that would be designed specifically to  appeal to an emerging counter-cultural audience.  After having to endure through the release (and failure) of Bluhdorn’s bloated pet  projects like Paint your Wagon and Darling Lili, the duo hit pay dirt with the success of Rosemary’s Baby . Evans imported a major, young European director named Roman Polanski, who was becoming famous for his art house thrillers like Knife in the water. Post Rosemary’s Baby, the studio went from strength to strength, as they had one big hit after another; Love Story, The Godfather , etc., all of them personally supervised by Evans. But by now, Evans was growing tired of not getting adequately compensated for the work he was doing and he asked Bluhdorn for a percentage of the earnings from the films he made. But Bluhdorn, ever the willy businessman and thoroughly aware of the chinks in Evans’ character, threw a bone in Evans’ direction that would boost his ego. Evans was going to have his own production company even as he remained the studio’s production chief. It would be the first time since Darryl F. Zanuck that a studio head would have his own production company. An overjoyed Evans embarked on his first film as a producer, which would be based on a yet unwritten screenplay by scribe Robert Towne. Towne had written the screenplay of the widely applauded Jack Nicholson starrer The Last Detail and was famous around town for being a good script doctor; he had written scenes for films ranging from Bonnie and Clyde to The Godfather. Evans had originally approached Towne to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but Towne turned it down as he felt he couldn’t tackle it. Instead, he offered him this screenplay called Chinatown; a detective thriller set in 1930s Los Angeles, that he was writing for Jack Nicholson. Evans agreed, but when Towne delivered the final script, he felt it sounded like Chinese too, as he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But he had faith in Towne’s talents and he had Nicholson locked for the lead role, so he decided to push on and offered  his old pal Roman Polanski the director’s job; Evans wanted a European perspective for this very American story. Polanski at the time had left Hollywood, swearing never to return, after the gruesome murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Charlie Manson gang. But the script and the prospect of working with Jack Nicholson interested him enough to commit to the project and he and Towne got together to rewrite the script. The rewriting phase turned out to be tumultuous as Towne and Polanski fought over every line. They would split up before the script was completed as they couldn’t agree on the climax; mainly regarding the fate of the film’s main female protagonist, Evelyn Mulwray. And since the shooting date was near , the film went into production without the climax being written. In the end, Polanski would film an ending of his choice , much to the disapproval of Towne, though later Towne would come around  to appreciate Polanski’s ending.

Watching Chinatown today, It’s hard to imagine that it was  an original screenplay by Towne. It could very well have been adapted from a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler story. There is a striking resemblance in structure and tone to the great works of those two masters of hard-boiled detective prose. The lead character of J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes (pronounced as Gittees) played by Jack Nicholson is cut from the same cloth as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. The screenplay also follows the ‘First Person ‘ narrative technique. All the events of the film are seen subjectively through Gittes’ eyes; when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and fades in when he awakens. But Polanski’s technique is very different from what  actor\director Robert Montgomery adopted for his adaptation of Lady in the Lake in which he played Marlowe; where we never see the character , but only his subjective point of view. What Polanski does mostly in the film is to place his camera about three inches behind Nicholson , so that we see what he sees as well his reactions to what he sees. So the effect is maximized. Other times, he just places Nicholson in any part of the frame without worrying about the subjectivity aspect. Which means that Gittes appears in every scene of the film, either in foreground or background, and we, the audience, discover the story & characters along with him. But since the character was written for a modern, method actor like Jack Nicholson, the portrayal differs considerably from Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe or Sam Spade. Unlike Bogart’s fast talking, fast moving hard-boiled tough guy, Nicholson here fashions a more laid-back, too smart for his own good dandy. He is vain and prone to illusions of grandeur of being a hero; who thinks that he is always a step ahead of his adversaries, but in reality, is always a step behind, which causes the ultimate tragedy in his life.

The screenplay by Towne, for which he won an Oscar,  is considered one of the greatest ever written for movies(some say the greatest ever), and you can see why. . Each scene in the film is structured like a piece in a massive jigsaw puzzle that all come together in the end. The film , though usually referred to as a Neo-noir, is much much more than that . First of all, it’s very much in the vein of classic Film Noir\ detective thrillers of the 1940s and ’50s like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Secondly, its an epic period piece about the transformation of Los Angeles from a sleepy desert town into a booming metropolis. Finally, within its themes of incest and murder, it has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy; In its Agamemnon-Iphigenia like  tale of a father sacrificing his daughter, or as a retelling of the tragedy of  Oedipus; with Gittes as an Oedipus like figure on a journey to uncover the truth but, always  blind enough, not to recognize the clues that are presented to him, resulting in death for the woman he loves and agony for himself. The plot of the film is labyrinthine, with multiple layers and multifaceted characters. The film basically is  two stories running in parallel – one political and one personal –  and involves two mysteries that is closely interlinked with each other involving the same set of  characters. The genius of Towne is that he keeps moving the two stories at an equal pace , so that the unraveling of one mystery leads to the unraveling of the other.

Director Roman Polanski spins the yarn the way a spider spins its web.  He takes his time with it, mostly filming the action in long single takes,  and slowly ensnares the audience in his web. Polanski was very much a visual stylist in the vein of  Avant-garde  European auteurs – as seen in his previous films ,but, for this film, he decided to forego all stylistic affectations. He shoots it very classical – no deep shadows or German Expressionistic lighting or  camera angles, with much of the action  taking place, either in broad sunlight or brightly lit interiors- This is totally in contrast to the aesthetic of film noir. Robert Evans would have preferred the film to have some stylistic flourishes like Coppola’s The Godfather, But Polanski, correctly, felt that, since the plot itself is so complex, the film needed to be told straight. The film starts out small and conventional: we see Nicholson’s gumshoe spying on cheating spouses and providing their partners with the evidence. But as the film progresses, the proceedings keep getting bigger and complex, as Gittes finds himself in the middle of a corruption scandal involving the Water Department. The main plot of the film kicks off when Gittes is hired by a woman to follow her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling),chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. and provide her with evidence of him cheating on her. Gittes gets the job done – by publishing compromising pictures of Mulwray with his (alleged) mistress, only to discover that the woman who hired him wasn’t really Mrs. Mulwray, and the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) , at first,  threatens to sue Gittes, but later, wants him to drop the whole thing. Hollis Mulwray is soon found dead, killed by drowning in the middle of a Los Angeles drought – as the coroner jokes “The water commissioner drowns in the middle of a drought , only in L.A“. Next, the real Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. Gittes believes it’s murder; the coroner’s report found salt water in Hollis Mulwray lungs. In the course of his investigation, Gittes finds out that huge quantities of water are being released from the reservoir every night, even though L.A. is in the middle of a drought. But any further investigations into the matter is put to rest when the department henchman(Roman Polanski in a cameo) slashes one of Gittes’ nostrils and warns him to stay from the place.

Aside: Usually, Hollywood refrains from disfiguring the film’s hero, because it would  adversely affect the film’s chances at the box office, but Chinatown is a special film where not only we see the lead actor’s face being disfigured in a brutal act of explicitly portrayed violence, but also for the fact that he walks around three quarters of the film with a funny looking bandage on his nose. When Gittes gets his nose sliced open, Polanski holds the camera unflinchingly on Nicholson’s face; there is no cutaway, we see the blood popping out; from there he cuts to the next scene where Gittes is framed from behind, sitting in his office, and only then he cuts to a full-on close-up of Nicholson  with his nose crisscrossed by a white bandage. Thus, the whole sequence becomes both horrifying and funny. The ’70s was a very different time, when both actors and directors were going into uncharted territories in all aspects of cinema, as witnessed in The Godfather as well, where Al Pacino had a prominent broken jaw for most of the film. According to Nicholson, Polanski was obsessive in his detailing of various stages of the wound, and how it would look at various stages in the film, which one could see in the changing size of the bandage on Gittes’ nose. It is interesting to note that director Polanski himself  plays the thug who slices Gittes’ nose. And the slicing of the nose seems to be a just punishment for a nosy detective who pokes his nose around in other people’s business. Unlike a lot of films, the nose-slicing bit goes beyond being just a moment of ultra-violence to shock the audience, it becomes a pivotal aspect in Gittes obsessive quest to uncover the truth regarding Mulwray’s death.

Now getting back to the film, Gittes finds out that Mulwray was once the business partner of Evelyn’s wealthy father, Noah Cross(John Huston). Over lunch at his personal club, Cross warns Gittes that he does not understand the forces at work, and offers to double Gittes’ fee to search for Mulwray’s missing mistress. The meeting between Gittes and Cross gets the biggest build up in the film. Until then, we have seen Cross only in a photograph taken by Gittes associate, in which he is seen arguing with Hollis Mulwray, and later, on the walls of the water and Power department office, when we came to know that Cross owned the department. It’s the first time we (and Gittes) are going to see him in flesh and we notice Gittes’ nervousness as one of Cross’ drivers comes to pick him up at the club. Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastically ominous score is now more ominous than ever. The scene between Huston and Nicholson is made richer by several meta references. The casting of Huston, who directed the great Noir classics of the 40s like The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, solidifies the spiritual connection that this film has with that classic Noirs of yore. Another interesting thing to note is that, in real life, Jack Nicholson was dating Huston’s daughter Angelica, and their conversation regarding Huston’s screen daughter Evelyn: ” Are you sleeping with my Daughter”. i don’t want her taken for a ride“, etc. rings with hidden meanings. Robert Towne was inspired to write this screenplay based on a conversation he had with a friend of his; a vice cop, who used to work in Chinatown. When Towne asked him what he did there, he said “as little as possible“, because it is such an alien culture for them, the cops don’t know whether they are helping them or hurting them. Towne would give a similar backstory to Gittes in the film. Gittes used to work as a cop in Chinatown but stopped when he realized that, while trying to help, he was actually making things worse. Hence the famous lines:

“What did you do in Chinatown?”

“As little as possible”

And as Noah Cross warns him in this scene “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”, and Gittes replies that he has been in a similar situation before.

Gittes deduces that the water department is drying up the land so it can be bought at a reduced price and that Mulwray was murdered when he discovered the plan. Gittes and Evelyn gets romantically involved and Evelyn warns Gittes that her father is dangerous. Later, when Gittes follows Evelyn’s car to a house, he spies her through the windows where she’s seen comforting Mulwray’s mistress, Katherine, His suspicions now turn to Evelyn , but, she assures him that Katherine is her sister. Even as all this is going on Lieutenant Lou Escobar(Perry Lopez) is also trying to solve Mulwray’s murder and he suspects Evelyn to have murdered her husband. He asks Gittes to produce her quickly, otherwise Gittes would also have to take the rap. So Gittes  goes in search of Evelyn.  At Evelyn’s mansion, Gittes finds her servants packing her things. He realizes her garden pond is salt water and discovers a pair of bifocals in it. He confronts Evelyn about Katherine, whom Evelyn now claims is her daughter. After Gittes slaps her, she tells him that Katherine is her sister and her daughter; her father raped her when she was 15. She says that the glasses are not Mulwray’s, as he did not wear bifocals. Gittes arranges for the women to flee to Mexico and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler’s home in Chinatown.

Faye Dunaway was not the first choice for the role of Evelyn, Jane Fonda was, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in this role. This is undoubtedly her greatest performance and one of the greatest screen performances ever. Only she could have brought out- what i would refer to as- the ‘Sheep in a wolf’s clothing‘  duality in the character. From the outside, she appears very strong , very handsome, almost androgynous in a Marlene Dietrich kind of way –  with her plucked eyebrows and her vintage hairstyle; she exudes a Dietrich kind of strength and sexuality, but inside, she is this terrified, broken up woman doing her best to protect the shameful secret of  her abuse by her own father and the child that resulted from it. “My sister, my daughter” , dialogue , though endlessly parodied, is the epitome of her performance. It’s heartbreaking to see the woman whom we perceived as a black widow or the classic film noir femme fatale  falling apart, revealing herself to be the most purest, unselfish character in the film. That’s another thing that Towne does with the screenplay. After tailoring it on the lines of classic film noirs, he subverts everything at the end. He also brings out the sexual perversion aspect that was inherent in those classic Noirs , but never explicitly stated, as it was forbidden at the time due to the strict production code.

Gittes summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal. When Gittes confront him with the evidence he has, Cross admits his intention to annex the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes accuses Cross of murdering Mulwray, showing him the bifocals as evidence for it. Cross does not deny the accusation, and has the bifocals taken from Gittes at gunpoint; and he force Gittes to drive them to the two women. When they reach the Chinatown address, the police are already there and they detain Gittes. When Cross approaches Katherine, Evelyn shoots him in the arm and starts to drive away with Katherine. The police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released. Lawrence Walsh, one of Gittes’ associates, tells him: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”, one of the most famous closing lines in movie history.

Well, this is not how Towne had intended to end the film, but it’s not true that he wanted a happy ending. In his version, the ending was much more complex: Evelyn shoots and kills Cross, but unable to reveal the true reasons for her actions , she goes to prison and probably to her death. But Polanski wanted a more straightforward ending: with  Evelyn dying and Cross getting away. He was relating to his own personal trauma of seeing his wife killed. He also wanted to justify the film’s title by setting at least one scene in Chinatown. Towne, though angry at the time, would come to appreciate the director for this ending. But the climax also proves to be the weakest point in the film, and the fact that it was pretty much made up on the spot really shows. The blocking and staging of the whole scene is so clumsy that it’s hard to believe that it was shot by the same director who shot the rest of the film. We have Cross approaching Evelyn; she pulls out the gun and shoots him and then rides of with Katherine. Up until this time, the police doesn’t do anything, then Escobar attempts to fire at her, which Gittes stops, in turn, Escobar’s deputy fires and hits her. It’s hard to believe that police would open fire at Evelyn in such a crowded place, and especially when she’s driving along with Katherine beside her. Even more improbable is that the cop would hit her from that distance and that too in near darkness. And after Evelyn is dead, the cops just let everybody go including Cross who’s leading a howling Katherine away. If it was in a “Dirty Harry” kind of film i wouldn’t have questioned the improbability of the whole sequence, but in a film like this it really nags. More than the improbability, its the staging that rankles; the whole sequence looks straight out of some bad TV movie in how clumsily and self-consciously every shot is made and every performance comes through. 

Apart from his mastery with the structure, Towne has also written  some great dialogues for the film. Like the words spoken by John Huston’s charmingly malevolent Noah Cross when he is confronted by Gittes, in the penultimate scenes in the film, about the sins he committed on his daughter , Cross’  most chilling response is:

“You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING”

In these scenes, we see how the two mysteries in the film converge. The ANYTHING , that he refers to here includes some of the most heinous crimes that any human being can perpetuate. The crimes that he commits on his family: incestuous rape of his teenage daughter (and begetting a child) is reflected in his crimes on the society : ‘raping’  the virgin Owen’s Valley so that it can be annexed to the city of L.A.  Cross is evil by all means, but he is acting from a sense of ownership, whether it’s the city or his daughter, and his logic being: I created it, or rather, i gave birth to it, so i have the right to exploit it for my own selfish ends. And when Gittes retorts “How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?” Cross replies: “The future, Mr. Gitts, the future.”. Huston’s casting is the most inspired aspect of the film. He plays the character as some sort of pre-historic beast, a dinosaur, with his imposing physique and voice , he towers over everyone in the film.

The film was a huge critical and commercial success at the time of its release. It received eleven Oscar nominations, but won only one: for Towne’s script. The film was beaten out in all the major categories by Coppola’s The Godfather part II, ironically, another Paramount picture. 1974 was a banner year for Paramount, when they produced some really great films. Apart from these two, there was also films like The Conversation and The Parallax View. It was also perhaps the last time when so many ambitious films were made as part of mainstream American cinema. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws would release the next year and alter the shape of the movie business forever. The success of Chinatown turned out to be bittersweet for Robert Evans. The success of the film prompted other producers on the lot to complain that Evans was concentrating only on his production and as production chief was not showing sufficient interest in theirs. So, Bluhdorn gave him an ultimatum- to choose either one of the jobs. Evans choose to step down as production chief and continue as a producer. And though he would continue to produce some good films in his later years, like Marathon Man, The Cotton Club, none of them ever came close to the quality of Chinatown. After the abject failure of The Cotton club, and his involvement in a drug scandal, his career, his finances and his reputation would forever be ruined. Chinatown also marked the peak for Dunaway, Towne and Polanski as well. Though Dunaway would win an Oscar for her work in Sidney Lumet’s Network, Chinatown is undoubtedly her greatest performance. Roman Polanski would never ever rise to the heights of Chinatown again in his career, though he would win an Oscar in 2003 for the film The Pianist. But even more damaging  was that he would flee Hollywood in 1977 after he was convicted in a rape case involving a minor. The incident has stained his reputation forever.

As for Jack Nicholson, J. J. Gittes would turn out to be his star making role. Nicholson has been acting in films since the 1950’s and toiled in B films and Roger Corman movies for more than a decade, until he got his breakthrough role in Easy Rider(1969). Post Easy Rider, he would solidify his reputation as a great actor with a string of highly acclaimed performances in great films like Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail. Chinatown took him to the next level.  Robert Towne, who was a close friend of Nicholson’s during his struggling days, fashioned the character specifically to suit Nicholson’s personality and his talent. Gittes could be considered the defining Jack Nicholson role, where we see, perhaps for the last time, the pure actor in Nicholson; without the excessive hamming and over the top mannerisms. The way he portrays Gittes is a masterclass in subtlety and coolness . He plays it with an air of superiority and smugness; someone who believes that  he is always in control of the situation, but when he  finally realizes that he is not, he snaps and wee see the chinks in his otherwise invincible façade. And the moments when he snaps: whether it is in a barber shop where another guy taunts him for being a dirty snoop; or when he is confronted with shocking truth about Evelyn and her father; or in the climax, when he is arrested and he finds himself helpless in explaining the situation to Escobar, hits you like bullets, because the rest of his performance is so stately and quiet.

Robert Towne had intended Chinatown to be the first in a planned trilogy about the character J. J. Gittes; concerning the subjugation of public good by private greed, where corrupt individuals fight over some natural resource. The second part, The Two Jakes, has Gittes caught up in another grab for a natural resource—oil—in the 1940s. The film had a troubled history . It was to be directed by Robert Towne himself (around 1986) with Nicholson returning as Gittes and co starring Robert Evans (of all people) as Jake Berman. But just before shooting was to start, Towne lost confidence in Evans’ abilities as an actor and wanted him replaced. But Nicholson stood firm and the project had to be cancelled at the last minute. The incident strained Towne’s relationship with both Evans and Nicholson forever. Later, Nicholson revived the project by taking over the directorial duties himself. The film, released in 1990, was not a success, either critically or commercially,  and it scuttled plans to make a third film in the series: Gittes vs. Gittes, set in Los Angeles of  1968; this time the finite resource being ‘land’. But the legacy of Chinatown remains intact. we can see the influences of the film in many modern crime dramas like L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

A film like Chinatown cannot be made today. It’s a film that demands a lot from the audience and, in today’s market place, where everything needs to be dumped down to the last detail, It’s impossible to make such an intelligent, sophisticated and stately crime drama.

4 thoughts on “Chinatown: Nicholson is great, Huston is iconic and Dunaway’s at her greatest in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Neo-noir classic

  1. This is an excellent take on CHINATOWN. I would disagree with only one thing: the ending in CHINATOWN always struck me as an intentional move away from traditional Hollywood filmmaking into something more modern, disturbing and jarringly hand-held. I am also one of those that find much to admire in THE TWO JAKES.

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    1. Thanks Mac. I also do like a lot of stuff in Two Jakes. I think it was a good effort from Nicholson. Though in totality it lacks the cohesion and visceral power of Chinatown

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  2. Fans of Chinatown may enjoy reading the great book about the making of it: The Big Goodbye, by Sam Wasson. It tells us that Towne had a secret writing partner (whose contributions were significant) during the best years of Towne’s career.

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