Chinatown (1974): Examining an Immaculate Screenplay

Conceived in what I’d consider the true golden age of the film industry, Chinatown was a combination of the fortuitous conjecture of a number of elements: the immaculate screenplay structure, impeccable directorial input and breakthrough performances. Nestled between other superb films of its time, Chinatown stood out to many because of the manner in which it encapsulated the depths of post-war Neo Noir’s into a cohesive, modern parable that has stood the test of time.

I could ramble on about Polanski’s vision for the film, the firm grasp he held over production, the stubbornness with which he ultimately deployed to save the film’s ending (but more on that later), or Jack Nicholson’s suave and sophisticated performance; but in truth it is Robert Towne’s script where the foundation of the magic lies. His powerful thematic use of water as a running thread, combines beautifully with an intricately crafted narrative. Using bitesize analyses, I’ll set out the most insightful and plot-ridden lines in Chinatown.

The Omission

There’s an omitted line that I’d like to include in this list. Towne had initially stipulated that Jack Nicholson’s character, J.J Gittes proclaims the below line in defiance by page 3 of the script: 

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As a private detective specialising in uncovering spousal affairs, after leaving the force under undisclosed circumstances, there’s an overt intention to give the audience an insight into Jake’s state of mind and his complete disdain for the establishment. This line delivers on two aspects of Gittes’ anxieties, the first being his guarded knowledge of corruption in the city of Los Angeles from his time in the Chinatown police department. The second is a derivative of the first, in that those in power will weed out anyone standing in their way.

Although a powerful line with gravitas, the omission was probably warranted, given that Gittes’ contempt for the police force is a subtle standing throughout the film that gradually unfolds. It would have been too early for Polanski to show this card.

The Moral Compass

There’s an early scene in a barber shop where a fellow customer assumes Jake Gittes to be a cheap P.I looking to make a quick buck on account of the desperation of others. An altercation ensues due to the release of his clients photos to a local newspaper and Gittes has a frenzied response to this:           

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Like an automatic reflex, Nicholson hops out of the barbers chair to confront the local banker. He defends his work in discreet investigations in a way that makes it seem like he’s doing God’s work, rather than admitting facts like he directs his associates to take sleazy photos of his clients wives. With snarling conviction he defends his line of work, and tears down the other customer’s occupation as a banker, who ultimately serves as a function of the wider establishment. Gittes is a survivor of that power structure and although he hasn’t completely shaken the skin he wore during his time in the force, he’s perpetually adamant that he’s not in that business anymore. There’s a dichotomy at play here that tortures Gittes throughout.

The Illusion

Chinatown is a surreal journey through a detective story filled with twists and turns that once answered, unload another set of mysteries. Jake Gittes is a sophisticated man, immaculately dressed to put his best foot forward, his confidence is accelerated by an acute nose for detail. It is his incessant snooping which results in Polanski himself appearing in a memorable cameo, slashing Gittes’ nostril open with a knife, and this character tick ultimately leads him down the corrupted path. For the entirety of the film, Gittes is hopeful and optimistic that he can solve the focal mystery, that of the death of Hollis Mulwray, once he found out the city of Los Angeles was illegally dumping water in the midst of a drought. In many ways, Gittes is under a wishful illusion that encompasses both his dismissal of his past while working in Chinatown, and his righteous outlook on his new line of work. His morals are tested again and again, but none more so than when John Huston delivers the soul destroying line:

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It is a line that spurns the disillusionment of Nicholson’s character, by illustrating the zero sum game at play. The establishment and those in power always win and Huston’s line reads like a desert mirage. Gittes’ contempt for underhand dealings is no longer a distant memory, but a very real revelation which upsets the moral compass he had tried to set for himself.

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The Thematic Thread 

Robert Towne used the 1906 Los Angeles water crisis as the backdrop for Chinatown, and delved into the details by tugging at corporate greed and moral high ground. He used the exploitation of the water in the Owen’s Valley to feed the growing city of Los Angeles, as a thematic thread throughout the film. Towne succinctly demonstrates the films’ world by utilizing the incestuous relationship between Noah Cross and Evelyn Mulwray to demonstrate the seedy and sickening underworld which the characters operate in. The Rape of the Owens Valley and its subsequent cover up, is a striking parallel with the rape of a young Evelyn. The result of this incestuous relationship is a daughter, hidden away from the eyes of the world. 

Polanski was, by all accounts, a notorious presence on set and questioned the script at all points. He and Towne fought constantly, and when it came to the film’s ending, Polanski was adamant that Towne’s magical, happy ending be scrapped. The director’s vision prevailed, ensuring that it was a far cry from a Hollywood ending. ‘Forget it, Jake it’s Chinatown,’ encapsulated a wealth of despondent sentiments that bookends one of the greatest screenplays in movie history. Chinatown, is itself an allegory for every shortcut and every rule-break human tragedy that has the potential to be swept under the rug by bigger forces. These other worlds in the film like the police force and the Water Commission, are all Chinatown, worlds where there are no rules. Nicholson’s character is not naive enough to assume that he can fix everything, but he’s hoping that Chinatown has left some things untouched. His wishful thinking is upended when he realizes that all roads lead to Chinatown. Bring the water to LA or bring LA to the water, no matter what gets in your way. That’s Chinatown.

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