Director: Roman Polanski
Production: Paramount Pictures, Penthouse, and The Long Road Productions; Technicolor, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 131 minutes. Released 21 June 1974. Filmed on location in Los Angeles.
Producer: Robert Evans; screenplay: Robert Towne; titles: Wayne Fitzgerald; assistant director: Howard Koch, Jr.; photography: John A. Alonzo; editor: Sam O'Steen; sound: Larry Jost and Bud Grenzbach; sound editor: Robert Cornett; production designer: Richard Sylbert; set designer: Gabe and Robert Resh; art director: W. Stewart Campbell; music score: Jerry Goldsmith; special effects: Logan Frazee; costume designer: Anthea Sylbert.
Cast: Jack Nicholson ( J. J. Gittes ); Faye Dunaway ( Evelyn Mulwray ); John Huston ( Noah Cross ); John Hillerman ( Yelburton ); Perry Lopez ( Lieutenant Escobar ); Burt Young ( Curly ); Darrell Zwerling ( Hollis Mulwray ); Diane Ladd ( Ida Sessions ); Roy Jensen ( Mulvihill ); Roman Polanski ( Man with knife ); Dick Bakalyan ( Loach ); Joe Mantell ( Walsh ); Bruce Glover ( Duffy ); Nandu Hinds ( Sophie ); James Hong ( Evelyn's butler ); Belinda Palmer ( Katherine ); Fritzie Burr ( Mulwray's secretary ); Elizabeth Harding ( Curly's wife ).
Awards: Oscar, Best Original Screenplay, 1974; New York Film Critics' Award, Best Actor (Nicholson; award also in conjunction with his role in The Last Detail ), 1974.
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* * *
The title of Polanski's film refers to the state of mind of Jack Nicholson's character, a former cop in L.A.'s Chinatown who left the force and turned private eye after getting in over his head on a case he never fully understood, bringing tragedy to a woman he'd sought to help.
History begins to repeat itself in characteristically bleak Polanskian terms when Nicholson becomes enmeshed in a case involving seeming femme fatale Faye Dunaway, playing the abused daughter of a local power broker (John Huston), the conniving, murderous villain behind a lucrative water rights and land grabbing scheme. Events come full circle when Nicholson again finds himself in Chinatown, this time to help Dunaway escape the clutches of her incestuous father once and for all—only to wind up getting her killed instead.
Unlike the similarly shady but virtuous white knight detectives in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, men who managed to restore at least some semblance of moral order to their chaotic noir universes at the end of each case, Nicholson's variation on Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe succeeds only in maintaining the status quo, and, on some levels, making things worse. As his cop pal Lt. Escobar tells him at one point: "You never learn, do you, Jake?"—no, he doesn't, because his state of mind fates him not to. "Come on, Jake, it's Chinatown," Nicholson's colleague says, leading him away from this latest scene of inscrutable—and unpreventable—tragedy in the devastated detective's life. It is one of the most haunting, and memorable, closing lines in the history of noir cinema.
Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for this seminal Watergate-era detective thriller was written expressly for his pal Nicholson, a lifelong clothes horse who had longed to do a part where he could be a dapper dan. California native Towne had been writing a tale about a real-life incident of corruption and environmental scandal drawn from L.A.'s early history when he got the idea of turning the piece into a period detective yarn in homage to his idols Hammett and Chandler.
Nicholson quickly signed on to play the gumshoe, Jake Gittes, and suggested Polanski, another friend, as director. Paramount green-lighted the project when Polanski agreed to direct—provided Towne would subject his 180-page script to an overhaul. Towne initially resisted, then agreed to undertake the task, working closely with Polanski.
The project marked Polanski's return to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking after two back-to-back box-office failures, Macbeth (1971) and What? (1973), both made in Europe. It also marked his return to Hollywood itself, scene of the 1969 Manson murders that claimed the lives of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends. He quickly began molding Towne's period mystery into a typically dark Polanski essay on sex and violence set in the "landscape of the mind."
In addition to trimming and tightening Towne's screenplay in an effort to make it less convoluted and more focused, Polanski insisted on enhancing the romantic relationship between Nicholson and Dunaway, which helps to further illustrate the concept that Nicholson's character is inadvertently repeating his past. To the same end, he altered Towne's conclusion. Towne's original script not only did not conclude in Chinatown, but it ended on a very different, upbeat note with Dunaway's character (Evelyn Mulwray) surviving and her loathsome monster of a father dead; justice triumphs and Evelyn and Jake go off into the pre-smog L.A. sunset together. Towne to this day disdains Polanski's downbeat finale, which is set in Chinatown, as a too-literal and ghoulish example of "bleak chic." But it is Polanski's ending that transforms the film from a polished, superbly acted evocation of the vanished pre-World War II milieu of Hammett and Chandler into a detective story of considerable and disturbing power—a seminal film of the 1970s. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of Chinatown ending any other way than it does. Polanski's alteration gives the film its meaning (troubling though it may be); it's what the story is all about.
An ill-conceived and ill-fated 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes , also written by Towne and starring Nicholson, who directed as well, makes this even clearer. The sequel, set in L.A. of the 1940s and involving an oil rather than water and land scheme this time, had plot—plenty of it—but lacked a story; Polanski had already told it, superbly and definitively, 16 years earlier.