In the early days, Los Angeles was just a village. But as it grew in the late 19th century, it needed a better water supply. A decision was made to build an aqueduct that would bring water from the Owens Valley into the city, but the question of who owned water rights led to a series of conflicts between Los Angeles and Owens Valley farmers, marked by dirty tricks and attempts to destroy the aqueduct. Going all the way to Washington D.C., the conflict has gone down in history as the California Water Wars. The Los Angeles Aqueduct is still there, its impact on the environment still a point of contention.
The Water Wars inspired the story of Chinatown, which originally was meant to be the first chapter in a series of films about corruption in the City of Angels.
Hired by a woman to tail her husband
In 1937, L.A. private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman who calls herself Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to start tailing her husband, who happens to be the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes takes pictures of Mulwray with a young woman, but the morning after they are published in the paper and Gittes is confronted by the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who tells him to expect a lawsuit. Gittes was set up by somebody who wants to harm Mulwray – who soon ends up dead, drowned in a freshwater reservoir. When Gittes talks to Evelyn again, she has calmed down and he agrees to look into the murder.
Engrossing tribute to the noir genre
Robert Towne’s script has become legendary, the sort of thing taught in film schools as an example of a beautifully constructed Hollywood screenplay. It changed during the making of the film, though. Reading about the shoot makes it look like one of director Roman Polanski’s most troubled, as he reportedly butted heads with producer Robert Evans over the length and ending of the script; he also got into big arguments with both Nicholson and Dunaway.
Polanski had never made a noir thriller resembling the old masterpieces from the 1940s, but his film became an engrossing tribute to the genre, with one of its masters, John Huston, in the single most important supporting role of the film as Evelyn’s intimidating father with a secret. Towne also wrote a neat mystery (with a shocking twist near the end) and dialogue that suited the genre very well, incorporating a lot of humor, especially in Nicholson’s character. Towne allegedly wrote Gittes with the actor in mind, and Nicholson certainly infuses the character with a typical anarchism. The genre feel is further reinforced by Jerry Goldsmith’s music score, which is just wonderful and lends an eerie dread to Gittes’s investigation. Polanski makes great use of parched Los Angeles locations, as an effective counterweight to the issue of water rights that dominates the criminal backstory; he also makes a cameo appearance in the film’s most famous scene where he plays a knife-wielding thug who cuts Nicholson’s nose.
The star is a joy to watch as the private eye, and Dunaway gives her character the right air of mystery; it’s the emotional history of her family and the relationship that evolves between her and Gittes that draw us in, not really the political scandal that leads to Mulwray’s murder in the beginning.
Chinatown became the last movie Polanski ever made in the U.S. His wife, Sharon Tate, had been murdered in 1969, and he had gone back to Europe, but this was a triumphant comeback. Tragically, the sexual abuse he subjected a 13-year-old girl to in 1977, and his subsequent escape from U.S. authorities, guarantees no more films from Polanski that are as American as this one.
Chinatown 1974-U.S. 131 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Robert Evans. Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Robert Towne. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jake Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Roy Jenson… Diane Ladd, Burt Young.
Trivia: Followed by The Two Jakes (1990).
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Nicholson), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Direction, Actor (Nicholson), Screenplay.
Quote: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” (Joe Mantell to Jack Nicholson)
Last word: “‘Chinatown’ is a thriller and the story line is very important. There is a lot of dialogue. But I missed some opportunity for visual inventiveness. I felt sometimes as if I were doing some kind of TV show. I thought I had always been an able, inventive, creative director and there I was putting two people at a table and letting them talk. When I tried to make it look original I saw it start to become pretentious, so concentrated on the performances and kept an ordinary look.” (Polanski, Penthouse)