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Chinatown at 30
The film that won Robert Towne '56 his 1975 Oscar
is now three decades old and still beloved.
By David Scott
Reduce landmark 1974 film Chinatown to one of those spinning
silver-screen headlines and you’d get “City Officials Linked to Real
Estate Swindle; Parched Angelinos Bilked in Water Diversion Scheme.”
This 72-point shocker wouldn’t seem out of place in tomorrow’s L.A.
Times and, in fact, has its basis in scandals that rocked Southern
California at the turn of the last century. Timeless themes of power,
corruption and lies may help to explain why the film written by Pomona
alumnus Robert Towne ’56 has become a classic movie and an
often-referenced bit of Americana.
Watching Chinatown on the 30th anniversary of its premiere
illustrates anew how great works of art defy temporal boundaries. A film
noir homage steeped in the moodiness of Raymond Chandler and James M.
Cain’s hardboiled pulp, Chinatown today reminds us of the central role
Hollywood plays in coloring our vision of an era. Think 1930s Los
Angeles and you might well envision Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, the
quintessential private eye with a natty suit and a nasty nose bandage,
or Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, the embodiment of the femme
fatale whose icy, elegant exterior barely contains her simmering
However, the sight of the young Nicholson and Dunaway forever sealed in
celluloid amber firmly grounds China¬town in the 1970s. Fast forward to
2005, and the film is roughly as far removed from its production date as
the era it portrays. This layered sense of nostalgia now magnifies the
flawless craftsmanship and unforeseen synchronicities that made—and
still make—Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay ripple with electricity.
Critics have argued that Chinatown had as much to say about the early
1970s as it did about the late 1930s. In 1974 the country had entered an
oil embargo– induced recession and was deep in the throes of the
unfolding Watergate scandal. Little surprise, then, that a film about a
Depression-era detective uncovering government malfeasance would
resonate so deeply with its audience. Further, 1960s idealism had
curdled by the early 1970s, and in Southern California the new Zeitgeist
wore the frightening face of Charles Manson and his “Family” who, in
1969, savagely murdered actress Sharon Tate, wife of Chinatown
director Roman Polanski. Rightly or wrongly, many have read two of
Chinatown’s three truly indelible scenes as oblique comments by Polanski
about the murders. In the first, Gittes is approached by a
knife-wielding goon—ominously played by Polanski—who, after suggesting
that the detective may be getting a little too nosey for his own good,
slits Gittes’ nostril. The unflinching scene was built upon a mainstream
Hollywood trend toward more graphic violence that began with 1967’s
Bonnie and Clyde, a film that also featured Dunaway and uncredited
script-doctoring from Towne.
Chinatown’s end proved to be equally unsettling. Polanski chose
to replace Towne’s original glimmer of hope with the sickening thud of
his own pessimistic vision. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael—who
had confirmed her reputation as the critical voice for American movies
by championing Bonnie and Clyde—wrote in her 1975 piece titled
“On the Future of Movies” that films like Chinatown signaled a
new complacency in the American cinema. “Counterculture” films from the
1960s exposed and excoriated corruption; to Kael, Chinatown and its ilk
seemed instead to shrug their shoulders and sigh, “Eh, you’ll have
this.” Kael wrote, “Polanski may leave the story muddy and opaque, but
he shoves the rot at you, and large numbers of people seem to find it
juicy. Audiences now appear to accept as a view of themselves what in
movies of the past six or seven years counterculture audiences jeered at
Americans for being—cynical materialists who cared for nothing but their
own greed and lust. The nihilistic, coarse-grained movies are telling us
that nothing matters to us, that we’re all a bad joke.”
Kael is right to assign Chinatown’s nihilism to Polanski. (And you must
keep in mind that Kael took her role as critic at face value in reviews
that became legendary for their tough love. For Kael even to write about
a film meant its merit was undeniable). Oddly, her initial “read” on the
film carefully avoided its most remarkable moment, a scene that 30 years
and untold viewings later remains as arresting as it was in 1974.
Gittes spends the first two-thirds of the movie slowly unraveling a plot
by Mulwray’s father, Noah Cross, and other city officials to line their
own pockets through a created public utility shortage. The shortage, in
turn, allows them to buy up cheap real estate that will, through their
own machinations, quickly increase in value. But Gittes also learns that
there’s a darker secret at the heart of the mystery, one that has led to
the murder of Cross’ former partner—who happens to be Evelyn Mulwray’s
husband. Gittes comes to suspect Evelyn’s involvement once he learns
that she is keeping her late husband’s mistress as hostage. Or so he
thinks. He confronts Evelyn, debunks the excuse that she has given him
that the mistress is actually her sister, and demands to know just whom
Evelyn is harboring:
Who is she? And don’t give me that crap about it being your sister. You
don’t have a sister.
Evelyn is trembling.
I’ll tell you the truth...
That’s good. Now what’s her name?
Katherine?... Katherine who?
—she’s my daughter.
Gittes stares at her. He’s been charged with anger and when Evelyn says
this it explodes. He hits her full in the face. Evelyn stares back at
him. The blow has forced tears from her eyes, but she makes no move, not
even to defend herself.
I said the truth!
—she’s my sister—
Gittes slaps her again.
—she’s my daughter.
Gittes slaps her again.
He hits her again.
My daughter, my sister—
He belts her finally, knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase which
shatters. She collapses on the sofa, sobbing.
I said I want the truth.
(almost screaming it)
She’s my sister and my daughter! …—my father and I, understand, or is it
too tough for you?
As horrifying as it is, the scene provides Chinatown’s scarred
heart. By distilling the story’s rotten core—the “incestuous” dealings
that are business as usual for Cross and his cronies—into a literal act
of incest, Towne in one stunning masterstroke lifted his story from
convoluted thriller into heartbreaking human tragedy. His original
screenplay offered an exit for Katherine from the family’s cycle of
abuse as hope for a new generation. In Polanski’s final version, Evelyn
lies dead as Katherine wails over her corpse and Noah Cross leers at
both, suggesting that Katherine will simply replace her mother as the
grand/father’s victim. Corrupt power remains king.
Kael softened her initial stance on Chinatown as she lauded
Towne’s next movie, 1975’s Shampoo. She pegged Towne’s
protagonists as somewhat old-fashioned constructs who value truth and
“think that maybe the old romantic dream can be made to work.” Of Towne,
she wrote, “With his ear for unaffected dialogue, and with a gift for
never forcing a point, Towne may be a great new screenwriter in a
structured tradition—a flaky classicist.”
Towne won Chinatown its only Oscar—best original screenplay—and
in the ensuing years his work’s reputation has become sterling, landing
Chinatown at a very respectable #19 in the American Film
Institute’s ranking of the best American movies. (Chinatown isn’t
Towne’s only appearance in the top 20. Francis Ford Coppola has publicly
acknowledged his uncredited assistance on #3-ranked The Godfather.)
Chinatown also has become a symbol for what may arguably be
Hollywood’s last great golden age. Thanks to champions like Kael, the
creative triumvirate behind the film—Towne, Polanski and producer Robert
Evans—gave very public faces to an emerging new American cinema that was
regarded as the era’s most dynamic art form. Sadly, Polanski would soon
be forced to leave America under the cloud of a sex scandal which even
his 2002 best-director Oscar win for The Pianist couldn’t dispel.
Evans would define himself as the ultimate Tinseltown bad-boy, a
reputation now lionized by his book The Kid Stays in the Picture
and the movie and television spin-offs that followed.
After the one-two knockout punch of Chinatown and Shampoo,
Towne settled into a period as Hollywood’s leading script doctor with
uncredited work on notable films such as Marathon Man, The
Missouri Breaks and Heaven Can Wait. His career to this point
had often aligned itself with magnetic Hollywood personalities. He cut
his teeth acting and writing for B-film master Roger Corman, and he
wrote his first major success, The Last Detail, for friend Jack
Nicholson. Legend has it that he turned down a lucrative offer to write
the screenplay for 1974’s The Great Gatsby so that he could
create the Gittes character for Nicholson, and he first paired with
Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait star Warren Beatty during his
stint on the set of Bonnie and Clyde.
By the 1980s, Towne had found a new Hollywood collaborator: himself. He
wrote and directed 1982’s Personal Best, 1988’s Tequila
Sunrise and 1998’s Without Limits, and he had hoped to direct
his own screenplay for 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord
of the Apes. When the direction deal fell through, Towne removed his
name from the script and credited it to his canine companion, P.H. Vazak,
making Vazak the only literal dog to receive an Oscar nomination for
best adapted screenplay.
The past two decades have seen Towne paired again with a Hollywood A-lister,
Tom Cruise, for screenwriting work on Days of Thunder, The
Firm, Mission: Impossible and M:I2.
Towne has celebrated Chinatown’s 30th birthday with special screenings
and discussions of the film in conjunction with Pomona alumnus Bob
Basset ’63, dean of Chapman University’s Lawrence & Kristina Dodge
College of Film and Media Arts, and Pomona College’s Alumni Relations
program. He no doubt will return front and center to America’s
entertainment media later this year when Paramount releases Ask the
Dust, a film directed by Towne from a screenplay he based on the
cult favorite by 1930s novelist and screenwriter John Fante. The film’s
stars, Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, will intensify the anticipated
limelight, and Dust likely will draw critical comparisons to
Chinatown for its Depression-era Los Angeles setting and its
The “death” of Hollywood has been lamented probably more times than
idealism and rock ’n’ roll combined, so one wonders how Towne—a director
noted “for never forcing a point”—will fare in a modern entertainment
business environment that favors point-forcing blockbusters and
sophomoric gross-out mayhem. Likely he’ll follow the advice of his own
Jake Gittes: “This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”