#378) Chinatown (1974)


#378) Chinatown (1974)

OR “Like a Dick Takes to Water”

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Robert Towne

Class of 1991

The Plot: Private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to find out if L.A. Water and Power engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrel Zwerling) is having an affair. Photos of Hollis with a younger woman make front-page news, and his wife Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) sues Gittes for libel. When Hollis’ dead body is found in a reservoir, Evelyn drops the suit and has Gittes investigate the potential murder. Along the way, Gittes uncovers a massive plot to divert L.A.’s water supply from the nearby farmland and annex that land for cheap, and all fingers point to Hollis’ former business partner/Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston). The plot thickens a lot more from here, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “compelling whodunit reminiscent of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett”, and throws superlatives at Nicholson, Dunaway, Huston, Polanski, Towne, and cinematographer John A. Alonzo. An essay by film critic James Verniere dissects the film’s symbolism, much of which both Towne and Polanski have admitted was unintentional.

But Does It Really?: “Chinatown” is as close to a perfect movie as you can get. Everything about this movie works, from Robert Towne’s brilliantly structured screenplay, to Polanski’s dark perspective of 1930s LA, to performances from Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston that reward you with each viewing. “Chinatown” may be the greatest film mystery of all time, and the rare film noir homage that can stand alongside the real thing. “Chinatown” continues to be one exhilarating ride 45 years later, and is a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Though they both did uncredited work on “The Godfather”, this is the only credited NFR appearance for producer Robert Evans and screenwriter Robert Towne. Evans had just stepped down as head of Paramount Pictures, and “Chinatown” was his first film as a hands-on producer. He originally commissioned Towne to adapt “The Great Gatsby” to film, but Towne felt he could not improve on the novel (Side note: No one can), and instead offered to write an original screenplay for less money. “Chinatown” was inspired by Towne’s interest in the California Water Wars that permanently affected his home town of Los Angeles. And special mention to Darrel Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray, aka the vic.

Wow, That’s Dated: Oh geez, I don’t know, maybe the “Screwin’ like a Chinaman” joke?

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial success, “Chinatown” led the Oscar pack with 11 nominations, tied with that year’s eventual big winner “The Godfather Part II”. “Chinatown” faced a near-shutout from “Godfather”, and walked away with only one Oscar: Original Screenplay for Towne. Among its losses, Nicholson lost to Art Carney for “Harry and Tonto”, Dunaway to Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, and the film lost in several categories to ‘70s disaster flicks “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno”. That’s gotta sting.

Other notes

  • Shoutout to Jerry Goldsmith, whose haunting score sets the mood of the film far greater than any dialogue could. And he wrote and recorded the whole thing in 10 days! Bonus shoutout to Uan Rasey, who provided the trumpet solos, and can also be heard on the soundtrack of pretty much every MGM film from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
  • It’s always nice to see Jack Nicholson before he became a caricature of his persona. His Jack Nicholson-ness helps ensure the dialogue comes off as natural smart-alecky talk, as opposed to clever writing.
  • Wow, this movie is a plethora of recognizable performers. Diane Ladd, Burt Young, Rance Howard, John Hillerman; I’m one Eileen Brennan away from ‘70s Character Actor Bingo!
  • Despite her infamous diva persona, I’ve always enjoyed Faye Dunaway as an actor. Evelyn may be her crowning achievement: a woman whose cold exterior is stripped away to its tragic, fraught center. Dunaway plays it marvelously, and I wish she would stop slapping stagehands and keep cranking out good work.
  • There are a lot of “golden hour” shots in this movie; everything takes place either at sunrise or sunset. Must have been hell getting those shots down.
  • He gives Oscar caliber performances AND he jumps his own fences. Jack Nicholson can do anything!
  • That’s director Roman Polanski as the thug that cuts Jake’s nose. “You know what happens to nosy fellas?” …They flee the country after being convicted of statutory rape?
  • I feel like sleuthing is a lot easier these days, what with the internet and all. But who wants to watch Jack Nicholson Google “Los Angeles reservoirs” or “Northwest Valley real estate”?
  • John Huston is to this movie what Orson Welles is to “The Third Man”: he makes a maximum impact with minimum screen time. And with that rich bass I could listen to him talk all day.
  • This is another one of those movies where the major twists were spoiled for me prior to my first viewing. Although I missed out on discovering this movie’s secrets for myself, it does allow me to appreciate the quality of the screenplay, as well as the performance subtleties from Dunaway, Huston, and everyone else who knows the truth.
  • “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” God damn this screenplay is good.
  • Shoutout to Perry Lopez as Lt. Lou Escobar. It takes a powerful actor to push Jack Nicholson around and get away with it.
  • Ultimately this movie isn’t really about solving the mystery, but rather about the corrupt forces that we are powerless to change. That being said, it is still a fun mystery to unravel. It’s like “All the President’s Men”, except everyone’s immoral!
  • The “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter” scene is equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking. Apparently Nicholson is actually slapping Dunaway (at Dunaway’s request), and this violence stands out far stronger than any of the punches throughout the film.
  • What a horribly poetic nightmare that final scene is. Towne and Polanski fought over the ending: Towne’s original scene had a few uplifting qualities, but Polanski insisted on something more tragic. Polanski eventually got his way, and Towne later admitted that it was the right choice.


  • “Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s last American film before fleeing to France to escape criminal charges (still pending, by the way). Sure, he gave us “The Pianist” and his victim (Samantha Gailey) has publically requested the charges be dropped, but still…
  • There are some movies on this list you don’t expect to have a sequel, and “Chinatown” is one of them. After a difficult production, 1990’s “The Two Jakes” saw Gittes uncovering a mystery about land and oil ownership in 1948 L.A. The film was a box office disappointment, and was Nicholson’s third and final film as a director.
  • Either there was going to be a third Jake Gittes movie as part of a planned trilogy or there wasn’t. Sources vary. Allegedly the third movie would have involved corporations buying up public transit to phase them out and build freeways. This plot point, along with several neo noir elements, was utilized in NFR entry “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, which takes many a cue from “Chinatown”.
  • But the main legacy of “Chinatown” is its immortal closing line. Everyone has done some variation on “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” They even reference it in “Inside Out” for crying out loud!

Further Viewing: Despite the film’s title, only the final scene takes place in Chinatown, and the only Asian Americans depicted are Evelyn’s domestics. But Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood is so much more than a metaphorical contemplation of when protecting someone becomes harmful. Please enjoy this video walkthrough. Be on the lookout for the statue of Bruce Lee!

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