Jack Nicholson stars as J.J. Gittes, a shady, jaded private detective specializing in divorce cases, who is approached by a woman (Diane Ladd), claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray. She asks him to investigate her husband, Los Angeles Water Commissioner Hollis Mulwray, whom she suspects of philandering. When Mr. Mulwray later turns up dead, Gittes becomes involved in a grand-scale conspiracy involving the control of water in drought-afflicted Los Angeles. At the center of the dirty dealings is a powerful local businessman, Noah Cross (John Huston), who has much to gain from directing water to his orchards, as well as some ugly personal secrets to hide. When Gittes becomes romantically involved with Cross's beautiful daughter, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), he is drawn deeper into the corruption and violence that seems to originate with the malevolent Cross.
Screenwriter Robert Towne based Chinatown on an actual 1930s case of corruption in the City of Angels. But he based his central character, Gittes, on the personality of his longtime friend, Jack Nicholson, and his mix of cynicism and seductive charm. The role was considered a real risk for Nicholson, who appeared for a good portion of the film wearing a large white bandage on his nose after a bloody run-in with a switchblade. That a star of Nicholson's stature would appear on-camera in such a face-obscuring get-up earned him respect in the industry as an actor committed to his craft above all. Though Nicholson was highly praised for his work on Chinatown and won an Academy Award nomination, it was not until the next year that he finally won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a charismatic mental patient in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In 1990, Nicholson realized a long-standing desire to continue the Chinatown saga with The Two Jakes, which he directed and acted in, but which was poorly received.
Towne sold the screenplay for Chinatown to blockbuster producer Robert Evans (Barefoot in the Park, 1967, Rosemary's Baby, 1968, Love Story, 1970) in 1973 on the basis of a one-line story outline. Fleshing out that one line was more difficult, and Towne took 18 months to write the screenplay. When Polanski first read the script he was impressed by Towne's detailed characters and ear for great dialogue. But he declared in his autobiography that "it simply couldn't have been filmed as it stood." He asked Towne to provide drastic cuts, prune several characters and otherwise rework and simplify the script. Meanwhile, producer Evans occupied himself with casting decisions. He particularly wanted Jane Fonda in the coveted role of Evelyn Mulwray but the final choice was made by Polanski - Faye Dunaway.
Living in Europe at the time, Polanski initially balked at returning to the city where five years previously his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and their unborn child were viciously murdered by acolytes of Charles Manson. But the script intrigued Polanski enough to overcome his reservations. "I was eager to try my hand at something entirely different," he said (in his autobiography Polanski by Polanski), "in this case, a potentially first-rate thriller showing how the history and boundaries of L.A. had been fashioned by human greed."
Transforming great potential to a workable story proved more difficult. Polanski and Towne disagreed on two essential features of the film. Polanski stated, "I was alone in wanting Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray to go to bed together, and Towne and I couldn't agree on an ending. Towne wanted the evil tycoon to die and his daughter, Evelyn, to live. He wanted a happy ending; all would turn out okay for her after a short spell in jail. I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die."
Once production began, significant problems between the various personalities created tension on the set. Polanski's initial choice of old school Hollywood cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter, 1955) had to be replaced when rushes of the film were too dark and deemed unusable. And Polanski clashed again and again with Dunaway, though he said, "when shooting was over, everything -- even Faye Dunaway's tantrums -- proved worthwhile." (Polanski's private nickname for the actress was "the dreaded Dunaway.")
The actors had their own problems with Polanski, including even consummate professional Nicholson who said of the director "he's an irritating person whether he's making a movie or not making a movie." For her part, Dunaway revealed in her autobiography, Looking For Gatsby: "The friction between us began from the start. During the makeup test, Lee Harman, who was my makeup man, had finished, and Roman came by to check it. He wasn't happy; he wanted me paler than I already was, though my skin is extremely pale to begin with. Instead of explaining what he wanted, he just started striding around, saying "No, no, no, I want it like this," as he grabbed the powder and began covering my face with it. The effect was awful, but his methods were worse. I came away from that encounter thinking that he was a bully. Now I think what he did to me throughout the film bordered on sexual harassment."
Polanski appears in a small part in Chinatown as the vicious hood who cuts Gittes' nostril with a knife when Gittes begins digging too deeply into the water conspiracy. Though Chinatown is, relatively speaking, a film with little explicit violence, this encounter between Nicholson and Polanski has become one of the most talked about in the film, often cited in discussions of Chinatown's "goriness." "It's a curious thing about that scene," Towne has said. "Many people have called the movie violent. But it actually has very little violence in it."
Nominated for 11 of the major Oscars, Chinatown surprisingly earned just one, for Robert Towne's Original Screenplay. The film was a critical and box office success, however, and a great feather in the cap for Dunaway, Nicholson, Polanski, Towne and Evans, and has proven to be an enduring film classic. Chinatown captured the rich mood and pessimistic atmosphere of the vintage detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, without being derivative -- instead adding a fresh, modern texture to a film with its own Watergate-era cynicism about high level corruption.
Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Robert Evans
Screenplay: Robert Towne
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Production Design: Richard Sylbert
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jack Nicholson (J.J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Escobar), John Hillerman (Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions).
by Felicia Feaster