Some of the best films are rooted in historical events. While they may not be exactly true to what happened, they weave unique characters into moments of historical significance. Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown does just that. It takes place during a very important moment in California history, but with a film noir twist. It also features some amazing performances from it’s stars and reflects the darkness and pain it’s director felt returning to Los Angeles.
Set in 1937 Los Angeles, private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to follow Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) by his wife who believes he is cheating on her. After photographing him with a young woman, it is all over the papers due to him being in the public eye being a chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulwray’s real wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) approaches Jake and reveals that he must have been set up. In an effort to repair his reputation, Jake begins to find out who exactly set him up. When Hollis Mulwray turns up dead, Jake finds himself head to head with Noah Cross (John Huston), who is also revealed to be Evelyn’s father. As he falls deeper and deeper into the web of deception and lies, he learns things are not what they seem and people of power will do everything they can to keep their power.
In 1971, Robert Towne was approached by producer Robert Evans to write a screenplay version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Towne, however, didn’t feel like he could better Fitzgerald’s work, so instead he pitched an original idea he had. Drawing on inspiration from the Water Wars in Los Angeles, Towne drew inspiration for his characters Mulwray and Cross from William Mulholland. One of the most important figures in bring water to Los Angeles, he was responsible for the St. Francis Dam. A mere 12 hours after inspecting the dam personally, it experienced a catastrophic failure and flooded San Francisquito Canyon. The surging waters reached various communities killing over 600 people.
Within the story of the film, Towne used Mulwray as the ‘good’ and Cross as the ‘bad’ versions of Mulholland. When Jake is following Mulwray, he listens to him at a meeting refusing to put his name on a dam that is being proposed to be built, especially after the “Van der Lip Dam” disaster. It’s not long after this, that he is found to be dead. Cross continues to move forward to buy up land in the Owens Valley and get the dam approved to be built. Even going as far as using the names of dead people to buy land. Towne did a lot of research into the goings on of the time for the film. He also made the stylistic choice to make the film a noir style. Using the archetypal characters from the 30s/40s era noir films, Towne creates a world that is real and unreal at the same time.
The film started with an amazing script, but was taken to another level by director Roman Polanski. At the time of the development, Polanski had already begun to keep away from Los Angeles more and more. Five years previous to directing Chinatown, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family in Polanski’s house. The event rocked him to his core. When the time came to start filming, he almost backed out. Los Angeles was a difficult city for him to be in. However, despite his personal feelings, he stayed on the project. It’s obvious he channels his pain into this movie. The best example of this has to deal with the ending. Originally, Towne had planned on a happy ended, however Polanski argued against this idea. Not only did he feel that didn’t fit in the movie, but he didn’t want a happy ending. The characters are broken people and even though it would have been nice, happy endings don’t always happen.
Jack Nicholson is excellent as Jake. Many feel that this is the film that helped to propel him into star status and I can’t argue that. It is easy to identify with him and when things are going so wrong, it almost feels like it’s happening to you. His “I will do whatever I need to do” attitude makes him one of the most determined characters I’ve seen. Faye Dunaway also brings an amazing performance as the very tortured and pained Evelyn Mulwray. As the film goes on, you learn more and more about her that gives explanation to her motivations throughout the film. In a bit of Oedipal parallels, Evelyn loses one of her eyes in a shoot out, a moment that was going to be cut but was kept in under the insistence of Dunaway.
Originally meant to be a trilogy, Towne planned on two sequels focusing on Jake and another issue dealing with corruptions & natural resources. In 1990, The Two Jakes was released, but never came close to the acclaim of the original. Due to poor reviews and box office, the third installment has been shelved. Towne won an Oscar for writing Chinatown and the movie was one of the highest grossing films in 1974. It was one of those films on the list I had always wanted to see, but just never had. I can see why it sits so high on the list considering how unique it was for the time and, despite it being a ‘period’ piece, it feels very fresh and very of the time. The film is so perfectly summed up in its final moments. After witnessing a shoot out resulting in a death, Jake tries to bring the truth to the attention of the officers on the scene. In a moment that seems to sum up the film, one of the men says “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown!” Jake then leaves as the officers start to direct onlookers away from the scene. Despite the statement, I doubt Jake will ever forget it.