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.”
Towne and Polanski Take Their TimePropelled 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).
Nicholson Versus HustonA 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.
The Aftermath and the FutureA 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.