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Volume 41. No. 2.
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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 secrets.

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...

Gittes smiles.

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.

—my sister.

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 risk-taking screenplay.

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.”
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