Chinatown (1974 film)

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Chinatown
Chinatownposter1.jpg
Theatrical poster by Jim Pearsall
Directed byRoman Polanski
Produced byRobert Evans
Written byRobert Towne
StarringJack Nicholson
Faye Dunaway
John Huston
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Editing bySam O'Steen
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • June 20, 1974 (1974-06-20)
Running time131 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$6 million[2]
Box office$29,200,000[3]
 
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Chinatown
Chinatownposter1.jpg
Theatrical poster by Jim Pearsall
Directed byRoman Polanski
Produced byRobert Evans
Written byRobert Towne
StarringJack Nicholson
Faye Dunaway
John Huston
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Editing bySam O'Steen
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • June 20, 1974 (1974-06-20)
Running time131 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$6 million[2]
Box office$29,200,000[3]

Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. 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.[4][5][6] 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.

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.

Plot[edit]

A woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Ladd) hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson) to perform 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 many large orange groves have recently changed ownership in the northwest San Fernando Valley. He goes there but is caught and beaten by angry landowners, who believe he is one of the water department agents who have been demolishing their water tanks and poisoning their wells to force them out.

Gittes's review of the obituaries uncovers a former resident of the Mar Vista Inn, a retirement home, who is one of the new landowners in the Valley. 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 done in the name of its residents without their knowledge. 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, but 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 he intends to incorporate the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes produces the bifocals—they belong to Cross and link him to Mulwray's murder. Mulvihill appears, confiscates the glasses, and forces Jake to take them to the women.

When the three reach the hiding place in Chinatown, the police are already there and arrest 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."

Cast[edit]

Jack Nicholson as J.J. "Jake" Gittes, in Chinatown

Production[edit]

Background[edit]

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.[7][8]

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.[9] 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,[10] about the third finite resource — land — in Los Angeles, circa 1968.[9]

Origins[edit]

The characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross are both references to the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855–1935)—the name Hollis Mulwray is partially an anagram for Mulholland. The name Noah is a reference to a flood, to suggest the conflict between good and evil in Mulholland. Mulholland was the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. For reasons of engineering and safety, Mulwray opposes the dam that Cross and the city want, arguing he will not make the same mistake as when his previous dam broke, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This is a direct reference to the disaster of St. Francis Dam, personally inspected by Mulholland on the day of its catastrophic failure just before midnight on March 12, 1928.[11] As many as 600 people,[12] 42 of them schoolchildren, died that day and the town of Santa Paula was inundated with flood water, as were many others in the Santa Clara River Valley.[13] The incident effectively ended Mulholland's career.

Script[edit]

Towne wrote the screenplay with Jack Nicholson in mind.[8] 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.[8]

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.[8]

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."[14] Evans and Polanski parted ways over this dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene a few days before it was shot.[8]

The original script was over 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.

Characters and casting[edit]

Filming[edit]

Polanski originally offered the cinematographer position to William A. Fraker. Paramount agreed and Fraker accepted. Paramount had previously hired Fraker to shoot for Polanski on Rosemary's Baby. When Robert Evans became aware of the hiring he insisted the offer be rescinded. Evans, who had also produced Rosemary's Baby, felt pairing Polanski and Fraker created a team with too much power on one side, and would thus complicate the production. Because of this, Fraker was fired and 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.[8]

Soundtrack[edit]

Chinatown
Film score by Jerry Goldsmith
Released1995
GenreJazz, soundtrack
LabelVarèse Sarabande

Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score, but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans, leaving Jerry Goldsmith only ten days to write and record a new one. Parts of the original Lambro score can be heard in the original trailer for the movie. The haunting trumpet solos were performed by Hollywood studio musician and MGM first trumpet Uan Rasey. The soundtrack was released through ABC Records and features twelve tracks of score at a running time just over thirty minutes.

  1. "Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title)"
  2. "Noah Cross"
  3. "Easy Living"
  4. "Jake and Evelyn"
  5. "I Can't Get Started"
  6. "The Last of Ida"
  7. "The Captive"
  8. "The Boy on a Horse"
  9. "The Way You Look Tonight"
  10. "The Wrong Clue"
  11. "J.J. Gittes"
  12. "Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)"

Goldsmith received an Academy Award nomination for his efforts though he lost to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather Part II. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal[15] published an article on July 11, 2009 praising Jerry Goldsmith's music for the film, crediting its success to the revised score. The soundtrack to Chinatown is often regarded as one of the greatest scores of all time and ranks in ninth place on the American Film Institute's top 25 American film scores.[16] Filmmaker David Lynch cites Chinatown as his favorite film score of all time.[17]

Legacy[edit]

Evans says that the film cemented Jack Nicholson, then a rising star, as one of Hollywood's top leading men.[8]

Robert Towne's screenplay for the film has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often celebrated as one of the best ever written.[9][18][19] 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.[20] 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.

The film holds a 98% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 59 reviews.[21] Metacritic assigned a rating of 86/100 based on 10 critic reviews.[22]

Awards and honors[edit]

Academy Awards – 1974[edit]

The film won one Academy Award and was nominated in a further ten categories:[23][24]

Wins
Nominations

Golden Globes – 1974[edit]

Wins
Nominations

Other awards[edit]

American Film Institute recognition

References[edit]

  1. ^ "CHINATOWN (X)". Cinema International Corporation. British Board of Film Classification. July 9, 1974. Retrieved September 21, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Chinatown, Box Office and Business". IMDb. Retrieved January 17, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Chinatown, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 17, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Pulver, Andrew (2010-10-22). "Chinatown: the best film of all time". The Guardian (London). 
  5. ^ 100 Greatest Films
  6. ^ "Greatest film ever: Chinatown wins by a nose". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-10-24. 
  7. ^ * Thomson, David (2005). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. ISBN 0-375-40016-8
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Robert Towne, Roman Polanksi and Robert Evans (April 11, 2007). Retrospective interview from Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition) (DVD). Paramount. ASIN B000UAE7RW. 
  9. ^ a b c The Hollywood Interview. "Robert Towne: The Hollywood Interview". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  10. ^ "'My sister! My daughter!' and other tales of 'Chinatown' - CNN.com". CNN. 2009-09-29. Retrieved 2010-04-28. 
  11. ^ Transcript of Testimony and Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster
  12. ^ Pollack, Alan (March–April 2010). "President's Message". The Heritage Junction Dispatch (Santa Clara Valley Historical Society). 
  13. ^ * Reisner, Marc (1986). Cadillac Desert. ISBN 0-670-19927-3
  14. ^ "Chinatown". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  15. ^ "Log In". The Wall Street Journal. 
  16. ^ AFI's 100 YEARS OF FILM SCORES at the American Film Institute. Retrieved 2011-02-18.
  17. ^ "David Lynch tweets". The Guardian (London). 
  18. ^ Writers Guild of America, West. "101 Greatest Screenplays". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  19. ^ Writers Store. "Chinatown & The Last Detail: 2 Screenplays". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  20. ^ hooover.org, Chinatown Revisited, April 30, 2005, retrieved November 24, 2010
  21. ^ "Chinatown". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  22. ^ "Chinatown Reviews, Ratings, Credits, and More". Metacritic. 1974-06-20. Retrieved 2012-07-20. 
  23. ^ "The 47th Academy Awards (1975) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-02. 
  24. ^ "NY Times: Chinatown". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-29. 
Bibliography

External links[edit]