Los Angeles detective Jake Gittes is hired by a woman claiming to be a Mrs. Mulwray to spy on her husband. Shortly after Gittes is hired, the real Mrs. Mulwray appears in his office threatening to sue if he doesn't drop the case immediately. Gittes pursues the case anyway, slowly uncovering a vast conspiracy centering on water management, state and municipal corruption, land use and real estate, and involving at least one murder.
Jack Nicholson ... J.J. 'Jake' Gittes
Faye Dunaway ... Evelyn Cross Mulwray
John Huston ... Noah Cross
Perry Lopez ... Lieutenant Lou Escobar
John Hillerman ... Russ Yelburton
Darrell Zwerling ... Hollis I. Mulwray
Diane Ladd ... Ida Sessions
Roy Jenson ... Claude Mulvihill
Roman Polanski ... Man with Knife
Richard Bakalyan ... Detective Loach (as Dick Bakalyan)
Joe Mantell ... Lawrence Walsh
Bruce Glover ... Duffy
Nandu Hinds ... Sophie
James O'Rear ... Lawyer
James Hong ... Kahn
Director: Roman Polanski
Codecs: XVid / AC3
Runtime: 131 min
Chinatown is a tremendous collaborative effort that produced one of the most memorable Hollywood pictures of the 1970's. Director Roman Polanski (his last film in America, and the first he made in America after the murder of Sharon Tate), stars Jack Nicholson & Faye Dunaway, and writer Robert Towne, all come together to create a detective story classic. At times it slows its pace down so the viewer can think along with Nicholson's character, to take in the environment as well as the situation he's in (i.e. when he goes to the empty reservoir, when he visits Noah Crosses house the first time). And the script has the perfect sense of drawing us into a story, fueled by curiosity, grit, and cynicism, and engages the viewer by its realistic dialog between the characters.
J.J. Gittes (Nicholson, in one of his best 70's performances) is in Los Angeles circa 1933 in the line of private investigator, usually dealing with people who may or may not believe that their significant other is having an affair. Evelyn Mulwray feels this may be the case with her husband Hollis, and Gittes decides to take the case. However, this draws him into a deeper case involving the city's loss of water once Hollis- a major player in the water supply controversy in the city- is found murdered. This eventually leads him to Noah Cross (John Huston), a big businessman and who also happens to be Evelyn's father. Intrigue starts to develop, as Jake's own life begins to be at risk.
As a intricate, detailed detective story the film is an above-average work, with Towne's script containing the maturity, and wicked sense of humor, of a James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler novel. When the thrills come they come as being striking. And when humanity and compassion get thrown into the mix, the film reaches a whole other plane of intelligence. The last third of the film could turn off some of the audience (depending on one's own level of belief), but it holds strong thanks to the performances. Nicholson doesn't over-step his bounds in any scene, finding the right notes in suggestive conversations. Dunaway is better than expected (though I'm not sure if it's an great performance). And Huston's Noah Cross is one of the more disturbing villains of that period in movies. Add to it some good cameos (Burt Young as a driver, Polanski playing the little guy in the infamous 'knife' scene), and a smooth soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown comes out as strong piece of movie-making, and arguably one of the greatest in the crime/mystery genre.
The seventies were the last years of great (American) films. I say films because when we speak of movies nowadays, we allude to blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars, the least amount of controversy, and are mostly inane crowd pleasers with tacked-on endings.
Consider the output of influential film makers Allen during that time: Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Lumet, Ashby, Bogdanovich, to name a few Americans, not to mention European directors Fellini, Bergman, Wertmuller, Truffaut, Argento, Saura, and Bunuel -- all household names in those days. Before Spielberg and Lucas came along, not a single one of these made movies appealing to the "summer blockbuster tradition," and unlike Spielberg or Lucas, they have a body of work filled in high artistic quality with minimum special effects and a lasting mark on future generations.
Polanski is another one of these directors, and with "Chinatown," he reaches his directorial peak amidst the scandals which seemed to taint everything except his art. One can only imagine him in the forties, living his scandals, and transmuting this into high art -- when film-noir was at its darkest. Thankfully he lived in a time which did not demand the "happy ending" or re-shoots in order to be politically correct -- else "Chinatown" would have lost its devastating punch and conformed to the norm.
A departure from the horror genre which brought Polanski to stardom, he re-creates an equally grim genre with his jaded view of 1930s Los Angeles down to the choice of the color palette, and using the acting powers of Dunaway and Nicholson to a fantastic effect, he creates haunting characters who can't be easily dismissed as film-noir archetypes without looking very closely at their reactions, listening to their words, and following their progressive involvement in a plot which threatens to swallow them whole, and ultimately does. And having Huston play Noah Cross -- who virtually took noir to its heights with "The Maltese Falcon" -- Polanski hits the mark dead center, because Huston is the hardened heart of the corruption in "Chinatown." In brief scenes he creates a character almost unbearably evil with a hint of madness just underneath, and how he affects the characters around him will pervade the viewer long after the credits have rolled -- after all, he is the person who tells Nicholson he has no idea what he's getting himself into.
I doubt this movie could be made today for reasons stated above. I'm thankful Polanski's vision prevailed, and not Towne's. Film-noir is a genre about human darkness, and here, the envelope is pushed all the way through, making this film, in my opinion, rank second to "The Maltese Falcon."
Jake Gittes is a former cop turned private detective. When he is contracted by a Mrs Mulwray to find out if her husband is having an affair, he takes to trailing Water Company Executive Hollis Mulwray. Mulwray appears to only have water and a dry riverbed on his mind but eventually they catch him with a young woman, although almost immediately the news gets leaked to the papers and Mulwray goes missing, only to turn up dead. At this point the real Mrs Mulwray comes to Gittes threatening to sue him for his involvement and Jake realises that he had been set up to set up the Mulwrays. He continues his investigation into the murder only to find a conspiracy involving thousands of gallons of water being wasted during a drought and the mysterious presence of Mrs Mulwray's father, Noah Cross.
As a fan of film noir and tough detective movies, I am too often put off by modern entries into the genre that try to replace atmosphere and intelligence by just having nudity and swearing; the genre managed atmosphere without these in the forties and fifties but yet modern films seem to rely on them. With Chinatown however, everything works well as a homage to the best years of the genre and, as such, is very well set in the period and is of suitable presentation even if the material and tone is darker and harder than would have been allowed years ago. This is not to say it is just a copy and paste from better films because it isn't and indeed stands out as one of the best detective noirs I have seen in ages. The plot is always going to be the most important thing and it gets it spot on throughout, doing the proper thing of starting with a simple story and continually building it more and more complex as it goes. Unlike some other "classics" of the genre, Chinatown manages to do this without ever losing the audience and I found the plot to be both rewardingly complex but yet still very easy to follow.
Needless to say, things are very dark and the script is convincingly dark and miserable, leading to an ending that is as depressing as I've seen – not so much in what actually happens but also in the wider implications for the characters that the credits prevent us from seeing. Director Polanski does a great job of putting this story in a lush setting that produces a real strong sense of period but also manages to always be showing us the darkness coming through subtly throughout the movie. Of course it helps that he also has a great cast to work with. Jack Nicholson is iconic in this role and, if I had to pick one film to act as an introduction to Nicholson then it would be this one. He is tough yet damaged, upright but seedy and he brings out his complex character well. Dunaway has less screen time but is just as impressive with a similarly dark role. Huston adds class and manages to ooze menace while also coming across as a harmless old man. The support cast are all fine but really the film belongs to these three, with Nicholson being the stand out role.
Overall this is a very classy film that has stood up very well to become a well-deserved classic. The story is complex, mysterious yet simple to follow; it is dark and seedy without relying on swearing or nudity to set the atmosphere. The direction is great, with a real atmosphere and sense of time and place that is matched by a great collection of performances delivering a great script.
* Director Cameo: [Roman Polanski] the hood who slits Jake's nose.
* The scene where Polanski slits Jack Nicholson's nose was extremely complex to film, and the two men involved got so tired of explaining how it was done that they began to claim Nicholson's nose was actually cut.
* Jake Gittes was named after Jack Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
* The original script was over 300 pages.
* At one point, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson's portable TV with a mop. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Lakers basketball games and kept stalling shooting.
* Because this film was the first of a planned trilogy, Jack Nicholson turned down all detective roles he was offered so that the only detective he played would be Jake Gittes.
* Roman Polanski eliminated Jake Gittes' voiceover narration, which was written in the script, and filmed the movie so that the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did.
* The last movie Roman Polanski filmed in the US.
* According to Roman Polanski's autobiography, he was outraged when he got the first batch of dailies back from the lab; due to the success of The Godfather (1972), producer Robert Evans had ordered the lab to give this movie a reddish look. Polanski demanded that the film be corrected.
* Among the items in Ida Sessions' pocketbook, which Jake Gittes rummages through, are a $2 bill and a Screen Actors Guild membership card.
* The name of Water and Power engineer Hollis Mulwray is likely a play on the real-life head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855-1935). A man obsessed with an engineering challenge of epic proportions, Mulholland brought the Owens River to Los Angeles--which turned the previously lush Owens Valley into a virtual desert--through a combination of determination and deceit.
* The movie's line "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." was voted as the #74 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
* In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #21 Greatest Movie of All Time.
* The movie's line "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown!" was voted as the #71 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
* Rance Howard plays the role of an angry farmer at the council meeting. Rance is the father of famed actor and director Ron Howard.
* The first part of a planned trilogy written by Robert Towne about J.J. Gittes and L.A. The second part, The Two Jakes (1990), was directed by Jack Nicholson in 1990.
* Screenwriter Robert Towne based his famous exchange--Evelyn: "What did you do in Chinatown?" Jake:"As little as possible."--on a joke a LAPD officer friend told him. This was because there were so many different Chinese dialects floating around that an Anglo cop would only get himself into trouble by misinterpreting anything said by the Chinese residents.
* Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski were notorious for their on-set arguments; during filming, Polanski pulled out some strands of Dunaway's hair.
* The role of Evelyn Mulwray was originally intended for the producer's wife, Ali MacGraw, but she lost the role when she divorced him for Steve McQueen.
* After several takes that never looked quite right, Faye Dunaway told Jack Nicholson to actually slap her. He did, and the scene made it into the movie.
* Writer Robert Towne was originally offered $125,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he couldn't better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and accepted $25,000 to write his own story, "Chinatown," instead.
* The prop knife used to cut Jack Nicholson's nose had a special hinged blade that would only bend in one direction. If it were inserted the wrong way, it would have really cut Nicholson who was understandably nervous during the filming of that scene.
* Jack Nicholson had the name "Jake Gittes" written on the shirts he used in the movie. Though this is not shown, it was done so Nicholson could enter in character more easily.
* Cameo: [C.O. Erickson] the banker in the barbershop who starts an argument with Jake.
* Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans, leaving Jerry Goldsmith only ten days to write and record the new score.
* Roman Polanski forced Robert Towne to sit and re-write the script with him. Towne was so opposed to this idea that he would argue with Polanski non-stop.
* Faye Dunaway's distinctive look was inspired by Roman Polanski's memories of his mother, who in the pre-WWII era would fashionably wear penciled-on eyebrows, and have her lipstick shaped in the form of a Cupid's bow.
* Producer Robert Evans was pushing for Jane Fonda for the part of Evelyn Mulwray but Roman Polanski insisted upon Faye Dunaway.
* Was voted the 4th Greatest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
* This was the first film of a planned trilogy about corruption in the development of Los Angeles. "Chinatown" was set in the 1930s and was about the water department. The second film, called The Two Jakes (1990) was completed and released. It was set in the 1940s, and was about the gas company. The third film of the trilogy was about the building of the massive freeway system and was to be called "Cloverleaf", named after the famous interchange in downtown, but it was never filmed.
* Peter Bogdanovich turned down the chance to direct. He later regretted his decision.
* The haunting trumpet solos are by respected Hollywood studio musician, Uan Rasey.
* After Ali MacGraw left the project, Robert Evans approached Jane Fonda for the role of Evelyn Mulwray. Fonda turned it down without discussion.
* "El Macondo" Hotel is named after the imaginary city in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude".
# SPOILER: Shortly after Hollis Mulwray's body is recovered, the original script included an omitted scene in which Lieutenant Escobar reveals to Gittes that he has limited sympathy for the victim, because a cousin of his was killed in the Van Der Lip dam disaster. From Faber and Faber script published UK 1998.
# SPOILER: Robert Towne originally intended to have a happy ending. However, during pre-production Roman Polanski and Towne argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic ending. Polanski won the argument and, when the picture was re-released in 1999, Towne admitted that he had been wrong.
# SPOILER: Roman Polanski has said that the dark ending to the film was a result of his own despair following the murder of his wife, actress Sharon Tate.