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Forget It Jake

August 7th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Chinatown 1974 Jack Nicholson Faye Dunaway

Roman Polanski was born August 18, 1933 in Paris. The sordid details of his flight from the United States in 1978 have often overshadowed discussion of the director’s work, which at the age of 77, includes one of the best films of 2010. Is he a world class filmmaker? In the month of August, I take a look at ten directed by Roman Polanski.
Chinatown 1974 poster A Chinatown 1974 poster B
Chinatown (1974)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Robert Towne
Produced by Robert Evans
130 minutes

The only thing really left to debate about Chinatown is whether it belongs among the 25 best films ever made, 10 best or whether it vaults over titles like Citizen Kane or Casablanca as The Best Film Ever Made. According to the legend as repeated by screenwriter Robert Towne, its genesis was a 1969 photo essay in a Los Angeles Times about Raymond Chandler’s L.A. Conceived as a love letter to the vanishing city of his youth and using something as vague as land and water as catalysts, Towne would sell Paramount Pictures production head Robert Evans on his concept for a ‘30s detective mystery and writing with Jack Nicholson in mind, deliver a 178 page script that both intrigued and bewildered director Roman Polanski. Pruning the epic script with Polanski, a point of contention was the ending. The screenwriter wanted good to win the day. The director preferred tragedy.

The power of Chinatown is the care the film takes to recreate Depression Era Los Angeles — which Gittes refers to only half jokingly as “a small town” at one point — and fill it with a complex story that remains mesmerizing no matter how many times it’s replayed. Through stunning production design by Richard Sylbert, a desaturated color scheme that evokes black & white photography and a sensual musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown achieves the illusion it was produced in 1947 instead of 1974. Where most whodunits focus on little more than heists or serial killers, Towne weaves an ambitious tale of natural resources, corruption and family scandal that stretches clear into the horizon, much as the city of Los Angeles does. In addition to the sucker punch ending, Polanski contributes a rhythm that enables locations like a city morgue or a retirement home to leap off the screen and feel real.

Chinatown 1974 title card

In Los Angeles of the late 1930s, private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by “Evelyn Mulwray” (Diane Ladd) to verify that her husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) — chief of the Department of Water and Power — is having an affair. Gittes shadows Mulwray at City Hall, where the engineer cites safety concerns for his refusal to build a dam that would ease the burden on agriculture, which gripped in a drought are sharing the water supply with the public. Gittes completes his job by snapping photos of Mulwray with a blonde in Echo Park. The photos are mysteriously reprinted in the newspaper and the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) reveals herself to serve Gittes with a lawsuit. Eager to uncover who set him up, Gittes seeks help from Mrs. Mulwray, who now prefers to drop the matter entirely. Before Gittes can question her husband, Mulwray’s body is pulled out of a reservoir.

Pressed for information by Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) — Gittes’ partner when they patrolled the morally ambiguous streets of Chinatown — Gittes is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to solve her husband’s death. Snooping around the reservoir where Mulwray died, Gittes is cornered by two goons (Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski) and has a nostril cut open. Sensing that Mrs. Mulwray is hiding something, Gittes visits her estranged father Noah Cross (John Huston), a power broker who once owned the city’s water supply with Mulwray. His interest lies in finding the girl the private eye photographed with Mulwray and he hires Gittes to do so. A key to the mystery lies in the San Fernando Valley, where farmers are being pressured to sell by an anonymous landowner who stands to make a fortune if the dam project that Mulwray blocked is now approved.

Chinatown 1974 Bruce Glover Jack Nicholson

Chinatown 1974

Chinatown 1974 Faye Dunaway

Chinatown 1974 Jack Nicholson

Chinatown 1974 Jack Nicholson Roy Jenson

Chinatown 1974 Jack Nicholson Faye Dunaway

Chinatown 1974 Faye Dunaway Jack Nicholson

Chinatown 1974

Chinatown 1974 Jack Nicholson John Huston

Chinatown 1974 Perry Lopez Bruce Glover Jack Nicholson

Alex Simon of The Hollywood Interview sat down with Robert Towne on the 35th anniversary of Chinatown for an exhaustive interview on the development of the script.

Richard Ballad caught up with Roman Polanski 35 years previous for an interview in the August 1974 issue of Penthouse Magazine.

What do you say?

Tags: Famous line · Father/daughter relationship · Femme fatale · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Paranoia · Prostitute

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Aug 10, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Great film! Definitely my fave of Polanski’s entire career and one I keep coming back to again and again. I love the mood and atmosphere of the film – the way it’s shot, lit, etc. It’s a shame that Robert Towne hasn’t been able to conclude this trilogy. I suppose the commercial failure of THE TWO JAKES pretty much killed off any hopes of the third and final installment from being made.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 10, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    J.D.: It’s unusual that thankless sequels to The Godfather, The Last Picture Show and Chinatown were all released within a couple of months of each other in 1990, proving that brand marketing has been around Hollywood for quite some time. I’m just thankful Son of Taxi Driver never got beyond the talking stage. Thanks for commenting!

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