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Release Year: 1974
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Robert Towne
Chinatown: a movie where a man's nose is split in two with a jackknife. A movie where a woman ends up with a bloody hole where her eye had been. Where friendly farmers wield guns. Where private investigators are jaded. Where nothing is what it seems… because of some seriously shady goings-on.
Some shady goings-on due to a fight over…water rights.
Not guns. Not drugs. Not turf. Water.
But before you start yawning and dismissing Chinatown as a bureaucratic procedural, remember that, historically, basic elements (like good ol' H2O) have been at the forefront of many a battle. The Falklands War—which resulted in over 900 deaths—was a dispute over a few hunks of barely-inhabited South Atlantic rock. The Iraq War—which resulted in at east 500,000 deaths—can be interpreted as "a war for oil."
And Chinatown is based in a skirmish as real-deal as the Iraq War—it's inspired by a fight between the City of Los Angeles and farmers in the Owen Valley after L.A. diverted the river that fertilized the valley to satisfy its own water needs. (Source)
But still—who knew that a movie about the 1920s California "Water Wars" would end up being a timeless masterpiece?
Screenwriter Robert Towne knew. The screenplay of Chinatown, which is Robert Towne's original brainchild, is often hailed as one of the best screenplays ever written. But he has to give some cred to director Roman Polanski, who added some very Polanski-esque darkness to an already emotionally pitch-black script…and helped make it the iconic downer it is today.
Here's the gist:
Chinatown takes the classic, seedy L.A. film noir and makes it even seedier. We see things all noir fans know and love: the slick P.I., the mysterious lady who might be a murderer, and corruption in high places. But the movie's dark secret turns out to be even darker and more messed up than you'd ever expect. Even if you're the type of person who knows whodunit at the beginning of every Liam Neeson revenge movie, you're in for a (nasty) surprise.
Today, the movie is held up both because it's such an awesome example of neo-noir and because it's regarded as such near-perfect story. In fact, a lot of people think of it as "the last great film noir," one of the "greatest American crime movies" and the best film ever made.
Not too shabby for a movie that's based on a tiff over something as seemingly basic as water.
What we're about to say makes us sound like the black turtleneck-wearing kid who comes in late to class stinking of unfiltered French cigarettes. We're about to sound more bleaktastic than all of Steig Larsson's books put together.
You should care about Chinatown because it exposes the darkest parts of human nature.
We know; we know. How pretentious does that sound? (Answer: super-pretentious.)
But we're sticking with our guns—and not just because, when it comes to Chinatown, you do not want to be caught without your gun. And not only that, we're going to break down Chinatown's importance into three separate categories.
On the narrative level, this is a screenplay about basically the worst things that people can do to other people. You got your water stealing. You got your corruption. You got your nostril slitting. You have murder, murder, and more murder. And you have what is one of the biggest, more upsetting twists in film history.
And the reason why the Big Bads in Chinatown are doing Big Bad Things? It's not for money—the baddie is a super-rich guy. It's not to make his life better—our villain is so old he's one foot in the grave. It's for pure power. We're going to let the antagonist speak for himself:
GITTES: Then why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?
CROSS: The future, Mr. Gittes—the future.
Yeah. This is a movie about people doing bad things because they want power after they're dead.
But the human-nature-is-a-nest-of-snakes stuff doesn't end there.
Originally, the ending of Chinatown was supposed to be mildly uplifting. There was some triumph—not much, but a smidge.
Director Roman Polanski did away with all of that.
We can't think about Chinatown without thinking about ol' Roman. This is a man who survived the Holocaust as a child. Then he found fame in Hollywood, only to have his wife and unborn child—along with four other people— murdered by the Manson family in one of the most infamous crimes of the 20th Century. (Source)
And then he directed Chinatown. It's impossible to watch this film without thinking about the violence that plagued Polanski's life.
(Today, it's also impossible to not think about the fact that Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977, three years after Chinatown was released—but we're just going to stick to talking about the events in Polanski's life leading up to the filming of Chinatown.) (Source)
But that brings us to the most insidious part of why you should care about Chinatown: the fact that the audience is watching all this violence go down (and thinking about Polanski's trauma) with bated breath.
Neither the violence onscreen or the violence in Polanski's bio would be worth noting if…it weren't noted so freaking often. Not only are articles still being published about how "the motif of violence [in Chinatown] reflects Polanski's personal history," but so are movie reviews.
That shows us that, when we watch Chinatown, we're still thinking about real trauma and violence even when we see the Technicolor blood spurt onscreen. And not only that, but we're obsessed with thinking about the real life events that inspire art—especially if they're super-upsetting.
So there you go, Shmoopers. Chinatown is a movie about sick things happening, directed by a man whose life was informed by sick things happening. And it's still being watched (and adored) by people who are deeply affected by sick things happening both on- and off-screen.
Roman Polanski didn't actually cut Jack Nicholson's nose with a knife, but they got tired of explaining how the trick knife worked and spread the rumor that he really did it. And that's how legends are made, folks. (Source)
If Robert Towne had completed his planned trilogy he would've inadvertently summoned Captain Planet. After all, what better or more obvious way to structure a trilogy than basing each film on one of the four classical elements? Chinatown was water, and the sequel, The Two Jakes, was fire. But everyone hated The Two Jakes, so the third movie, Gittes vs. Gittes, was never made. (It would've been related to air.) (Source)
You did what, Old Sport? Robert Towne turned down a $125,000 offer to adapt The Great Gatsby for the screen. Instead, he asked for $25,000 to write Chinatown. (Source)
Ironically, the screenwriter wanted a "Hollywood ending." Robert Towne's original screenplay for Chinatown had a happy ending, but Roman Polanski insisted on changing it. (Source)
Hollis Mulwray simply would not give a dam—to the people, when they demanded it. But his real-life counterpart, the water department chief, William Mulholland, definitely did…and it broke. The Van Der Lip Dam collapse mentioned in the movie is based on the St. Francis Dam collapse, which killed 476 people. (Source)
Chinatown IMDB Page
This is a great resource for technical specifics, cast lists, a brief synopsis and so on. But we're not necessarily saying it's so great for in-depth analysis and summaries. Perhaps you'll need to look elsewhere? (Cough Shmoop cough cough).
Chinatown Rotten Tomatoes Page
Rotten Tomatoes lets you read reviews by critics who loved Chinatown…and now look like intelligent people. It also lets you read reviews by critics who didn't like it…and now look like a pack of dopes. Mock them mercilessly!
Chinatown AMC Filmsite
You get a nice little nosh here—a taste of the depth and true meaning of Chinatown, thanks to a bit of analysis and summary.
Chinatown's TCM Page
There are some good details in here—it has some interesting quotes from Polanski about his contributions to the story (unhappy ending, sex between Evelyn and Jake) and quotes from Dunaway and Nicholson about how they didn't get along with Polanski. (Polanski is a bit of a diva.)
Chinatown Metacritic Page
This page is like Rotten Tomatoes, except…okay, it's basically just like Rotten Tomatoes.
The Two Jakes
Robert Towne wrote the script for this 1990 sequel to Chinatown and Jack Nicholson directed it. It was a horrible disaster that went down in flames. 'Nuff said.
Roger Ebert Reviews Chinatown
Roger Ebert loved Chinatown, and his review pays particular attention to Jake Gittes' character. He says that Gittes, despite the external trappings of a hardboiled detective, is "a nice, sad man."
"5 Things You Might Not Know About Roman Polanski's Chinatown" by Oliver Lyttelton
Lyttelton doesn't go for the sexy, salacious details here. He focuses more on the fun facts that actually involve the making of the movie, like how the Evelyn role was originally intended for Jane Fonda.
"Chinatown: The Best Film of All Time" by Andrew Pulver
As you can tell from the title, Pulver isn't trying to chisel away at a classic. He's just explaining why people love this movie, and why Chinatown ranked number one in a poll.
"Empire Essay: Chinatown Review" by Angie Errigo
Errigo praises Polanski's direction, and is very admiring in his assessment of the movie. (He hated the sequel The Two Jakes, like most people).
An Analysis of Chinatown by Mark Graves, a Professor at SUNY Fredonia
This dude provides his own take on Chinatown, but he also spends some time putting reviews he doesn't agree with on blast—which is sort of funny.
"Forget It Bob, It's Chinatown: Robert Towne Looks Back on Chinatown's 35th Anniversary" by Alex Simon
Robert Towne provides tons of insights into how the film was made, talking about his own influences in writing the script, the experience of collaborating with Polanski, etc.
"Jack Nicholson Talks! In Rare Interview, Actor Reveals Details of Never-Shot Chinatown Sequel" by Josh Horowitz
Nicholson talks about working with Polanski, and what went wrong with the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes.
"Xan Brooks Gets On the Wrong Side of Hollywood Legend Faye Dunaway" by Xan Brooks
Faye Dunaway angrily ended this interview when the interviewer, Xan Brooks, asked her if it was true that she threw a cup of pee in Roman Polanski's face on the set of Chinatown. She adamantly denied this.
This trailer doesn't give away too much, just the basic prompt, though it does show the very end of the last scene where Walsh says, "Forget it, Jake—it's Chinatown"
Roman Polanski on Chinatown as True Tragedy
Polanski was responsible for the unhappy ending, so he should probably know what makes the movie a genuine tragedy.
Polanski on the Making of Chinatown
We see Polanski talking about his relationship with the producer and actors, while a dude with a sonorous Irish accent fills us on the details about Polanski's own life. It goes to some dark places, talking about how the Manson Family killed Polanski's wife.
Clip: "My Sister, My Daughter"
This is the moment—the terrible secret comes out.
Clip: "Capable of Anything"
John Huston speaks one of his big lines, projecting a menace that goes beyond his character's respectable appearance.
Clip: The Ending of Chinatown
This is the cryptic, tragic ending which leaves us feeling just as sad and bewildered as the main character, Jake.
Jerry Goldsmith on Writing the Score for Chinatown
Goldsmith talks about how he wrote according to the mood of different scenes—and clips from the movie illustrate how it worked out. Interesting stuff, especially if you're into music.
Excerpt from Jerry Goldsmith's Score to Chinatown
There's a strongly romantic yet also melancholy feel to much of this jazz-style score.
The Title Track to Chinatown
The title track has a very eerie vibe at first, with lots of dissonant notes, but than it segues into the romantic jazz stuff.
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
Here's Nicholson as Gittes, already getting dragged into the mystery. Here, he spies on Hollis Mulwray, as Hollis inspects the dry L.A. River.
Gittes with a Bandaged Nose
Nicholson's nose wasn't really cut—Polanski used a fake knife. But his bandaged-nose-look is semi-iconic, now.
Director Polanski as a Knife Wielding Bad Boy
Nice bowtie, dude…Polanski normally had long, counter-cultural hair. But here, it's short.
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
Dunaway projects mystery— what's her deal? Is she a murderer? The answer turns out to be, bucking film noir tradition…no.
John Huston as Noah Cross
Huston, a famous director, looks like a gentlemanly old man—deceptive, considering his character's a monster.
Screenwriter Robert Towne
Towne looks like a writer, right? He's got the shaggy mane, the specs, and the introvert's beard.
Dunaway's Gruesome Death Scene Make-Up
Evelyn gets shot through the eye and dies. Consequently, this looks gross.
Chinatown Movie Poster
We think it's cool the way Evelyn's hair is created by the smoke from Jake's cigarette.