Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘Chinatown’: A Perfect Storm of Writing, Direction, and Performance

Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘Chinatown’: A Perfect Storm of Writing, Direction, and Performance
Jack Nicholson J.J. 'Jake' Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray in "Chinatown." (Paramount Pictures)
Michael Clark

Arriving at the peak of the “American New Wave” period, “Chinatown” marked the creative zenith for many of those involved in the production, and in particular Robert Towne, who went on to win multiple awards for his screenplay, still considered by most to be the finest of its kind ever written. Towne’s was the sole Oscar-winner (out of 11 nominations) in a year dominated by “The Godfather Part II.”

Pulling in over $29 million at the box office against just a $6 million budget, “Chinatown” obviously made a nice return on investment and received countless critical accolades but was and remains largely ignored by the masses. Even though it starred Jack Nicholson (as private eye Jake Gittes, who appears in every scene) and Faye Dunaway, the most bankable leading lady at the time, the bleak tone and noir subject matter didn’t exactly scream “crowd pleaser!”

Towne and Polanski Take Their Time

Propelled by a haunting and spare jazz score by Jerry Goldsmith, Towne and director Roman Polanski slowly unspool a story that initially appears unnecessarily complicated but in retrospect is the exact opposite. There are no red herring fake suspects, no ah-ha or gotcha plot reveals, and a total absence of lazy narrative sleight-of-hand. Towne’s dispensing of clues is slow, steady and without any type of “above it all” smugness. His almost painfully simple story succeeds because of superior plot and character development and Polanski’s deliberate pacing. Never once do things move along too slow or too fast.

A specialist at divorce work, Gittes is approached by a woman (Diane Ladd) identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of a prominent city employee. She thinks he’s cheating on her and has no qualms with the possible expensive price tag involved with such an investigation. Gittes and his two assistants quickly solve the case by catching Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwirling) in the company of a younger mystery woman and the reveal makes front page news. The only problem: Gittes was hired by an actress pretending to be Mrs. Mulwray and the genuine article (Dunaway) retaliates by initiating a lawsuit against him.

A woman with multiple walk-in size closets of skeletons, Evelyn soon drops the suit while handsomely compensating Gittes for his troubles, but that’s not good enough for him. He was duped and in his line of work—however salacious and tawdry it might be—credibility means everything and he’s dead set on clearing his name. He wants to find out who set him (and, by proxy, Evelyn) up.

The death of a principal character soon follows which sends the narrative in an unexpected, but highly welcomed different direction. Gittes takes it upon himself to ferret out the culprit but in doing so begins battling city hall, the police department, and Hollis’s former business partner Noah Cross (John Huston).

(L―R) John Huston as Noah Cross and Jack Nicholson J.J. 'Jake' Gittes in "Chinatown." (Paramount Pictures)
(L―R) John Huston as Noah Cross and Jack Nicholson J.J. 'Jake' Gittes in "Chinatown." (Paramount Pictures)

Nicholson Versus Huston

A mid-film interaction between Giddes and Cross provided the film with its arguable high-water mark. At the time the movie was shooting, Nicholson had recently entered an off-screen romantic relationship with Huston’s daughter Anjelica, which remained off-and-on for 17 years. Throughout this mostly uninterrupted sequence, Cross accuses Gittes off taking advantage of his “daughter” and the “art-imitates-life-imitates-art” parable proved to be inescapable.

A double Oscar-winner as the screenwriter and director for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Huston regularly appeared in cameo roles in his and other director’s films, yet none came close to matching the impact of his role in “Chinatown.” A thoroughly despicable person on every level, Huston’s Cross is the devil incarnate. The nightmare of not one but two female characters, Cross is one of the most evil antagonists in the history of the film medium.

Throughout the shooting of the film, Polanski and Towne butted heads on the final scene to such a degree that Towne eventually threw in the towel and let Polanski have his way. While Towne’s original vision was downbeat, it was more open-ended than Polanski’s grim conclusion, which left little to the imagination. In retrospective interviews, Towne has come to terms with Polanski’s choice, effectively agreeing it was the proper way to go. Many have speculated that Polanski’s revamped ending was a thinly-veiled reply to the murder of his wife Sharon Tate just six years earlier, a theory that holds significant merit.

The Aftermath and the Future

A full 16 years after “Chinatown,” Towne and Nicholson teamed up for a sequel, “The Two Jakes,” and despite lots of industry gossip claiming it was a complicated and troubled production, the finished product showed no signs of disarray and proved to be more than a worthy follow-up. At various points along the way, Towne was also going to direct but eventually bowed out leaving Nicholson with the reins.

Towne had envisioned “Chinatown” as a trilogy. The first installment was about water in the late '30s, the second concerning oil in the post-war ’40s and the last about real estate, set in the second half of the '60s. The final feature was going to be titled “Gittes vs. Gittes.” Who knows how it might have ever played out, but I for one will be the first person in line for a ticket to see it if and when it ever gets made.

‘Chinatown’ Director: Roman Polanski Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Burt Young, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes MPAA Rating: R Release Date: June 20, 1974 Rating: 5 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.