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Cult films to see before you die: Chinatown

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Cult films to see before you die: Chinatown

The last great film noir that established Jack Nicholson as the best American actor of his generation—the significance of Chinatown is undeniable. James Oliver digs into the story behind this 1974 classic, including its dark love affair with Los Angeles.   

Los Angeles has never been a modest sort of place. Even before it became home to the American film industry it prided itself on being a boom town, where opportunity was as abundant as the local oranges. Why, even the weather was pretty much perfect.


But, of course, the brighter the sun, the deeper the shadows. More than anywhere else in America, Los Angeles was built on exploitation and naked theft, usually in plain sight. This paradox—between a mythology of radiant optimism and sordid reality—has inspired many writers and filmmakers over the years, from hardboiled kingpin Raymond Chandler to his demonic descendant James Ellroy by way of the cinematic squalor of film noir.

Never, though, were the city’s ripped insides seen so clearly as they were in Chinatown. Made in 1974, it's one of the most important (not to mention best) films of that brief period when, for a few years, Hollywood made films for grown-ups.

The script was by Robert Towne, then the hottest screenwriter in town. A Los Angeles homeboy, he’d grown up hearing whispers about the shady deals that had made the city what it was and was inspired to write Chinatown after reading about the murky history of the city’s water rights.

Robert Towne. Image via melhoresfilmes 

Admittedly, this is not the most scintillating of subjects—indeed, one of the reasons the culprits got away with it so easily is that, like so much corruption, it was too mundane to attract much notice. So Towne found an ingenious way to frame his tale: borrowing from the city’s tradition of mystery fiction, of Chandler and of noir, he wrote it as a detective story.

Set in 1937, Towne’s detective was Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson in one of those performances that remind just how good he really is. It begins as a simple investigation—Jake is hired to follow a man named Horace Mulwray—but swims into deeper waters when Jake encounters Mulwray’s plutocratic father-in-law Noah Cross (played by director John Huston).


Towne’s script functions both as an outstandingly plotted mystery—it’s more ingenious than a great many more traditionally minded detective stories—and as a study of corruption, with the utter venality of Cross incarnated by a horrible metaphor that reveals the man’s utter moral depravity.

It should be noted, though, that Towne intended some measure of hope; his original script allowed for justice to be done. Those who have seen the film will know this is not the case. To Towne’s great dismay, director Roman Polanski insisted on something darker.

While Towne was a local, Polanski saw Los Angeles as an outsider and he felt Towne’s preferred ending was phoney. It’s a measure of how right Polanski was—and how he imposed himself upon the script—that it’s almost impossible to imagine any other conclusion to the film.

Polanski is a contentious figure for obvious reasons, but disgust with his behaviour should not be allowed to overshadow the work: whatever else he is, he is also a great director, and he was never better than he was here.

Roman Polanski. Image via cinemarodrigo 

Towne envisaged Chinatown as the first in a trilogy, with further films exploring corruption in Southern California. Polanski’s flight from the law meant that he could not be involved but Jack Nicholson was game; after one abortive start, the actor returned in 1990 for The Two Jakes, which he also directed.

The film was not a success—the sprawling storyline shows how much Towne benefitted from Polanski’s ruthless script-editing on Chinatown—and we should not hold out hope for the third instalment. Perhaps, though, you might accept a substitute? Towne’s original plan for part three was to look at how public transport was destroyed in Los Angeles.

That’s also the subject of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film much closer to Chinatown than any reputation as a lightweight kiddy flick might suggest.


It’s sobering to think that we are now further away from Chinatown than the makers of Chinatown were from the year they set their film, but despite the passing years, not much has changed: Los Angeles still presents itself with smiling optimism, no matter how regularly the police department is tarnished with racism, or how thick the smog is.

That mythology remains seductive—only the most committed grump, for instance, would sneer at La La Land – but as Chinatown shows us, it’s sometimes the people with the biggest smiles that are the most dangerous. 


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