Take a screenwriting class, any screenwriting class, and I almost guarantee you that, before the first session is over, your teacher will mention Robert Towne‘s script for Chinatown in a tone that grown men usually reserve for talking about their first crush. The screenplay for this film has been held up as an example of near perfection of the screenwriting craft and, if I were more cynical, I might look hard for a reason to find fault with that opinion. I probably wouldn’t find it, though.
Taking a real event from the turn of the century, the so-called “Rape of the Owens Valley“, and transplanting it 20 years forward to the 1930s, Towne and director Roman Polanski crafted perhaps the ultimate modern interpretation of the film noir genre. All of the ingredients are here, the flawed but noble hero, surrounded by a corrupt city, and the mysterious woman who brings romance and trouble in equal quantities.
Jack Nicholson plays private eye Jake Gittes as the heir apparent to Bogart’s Sam Spade, cool, normally unflappable and willing to bend the rules when necessary. At the beginning of the film, a woman calling herself Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd), wife of the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power, wants to hire Jake Gittes to prove her husband is having an affair. Probably sensing what a hornet’s nest he’d be stirring up, Jake tries his best to turn the job down but the woman insists.
Taking the job, Jake begins to follow Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), but rather than leading the detective to a girlfriend, the chief engineer takes him on a whirlwind tour of the Los Angeles water system. The man doesn’t seem interested in women, but rather in how millions of gallons of water are being dumped into the ocean in the middle of a drought. Also, Jake learns that Mulray is being pressured to build a damn that would divert water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. Finally one of Jake’s detective spots him with a girl at Echo Park. They snap a few photos of the two of them in a boat and that seems to be that.
The next day, however, the photos Jake took turn up on the front page of the newspaper and Evelyn, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), turns up in Jake’s office, with her lawyer in tow. Jake has been set up and he wants to know why and, more importantly, who did it. His attempts to reach Hollis Mulwray are frustrated, especially when the man turns up dead, drowned in the reservoir.
Jake’s attempts to find out who was behind the bogus Mrs. Mulray don’t get him very much besides a sliced nostril and the name of Mulwray’s old business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston), who also happens to be Evelyn’s father and the man who virtually owns the Los Angeles water supply.
Faye Dunaway is superb as a woman who is equal parts resilient and emotionally fragile while John Huston’s gregarious performance perfectly hides the menace underneath. He’s an outwardly friendly man who makes no bones about the fact he could crush you under his heel without thinking twice about it.
The story borrows heavily from the real history of Los Angeles. Together, Noah Cross and Hollis Mulray stand-in for William Mulholland, the man who originally brought water to the city. The “Van Der Lip Dam” that Mulwray mentions was really the St. Francis, which failed catastrophically in 1928 with the loss of 400 lives.
Chinatown is a tale of power and money triumphant over of any kind of justice. The film’s name and theme were inspired by Robert Towne’s conversation with a real vice cop who had worked in Chinatown. When asked what he did, the cop replied, “As little as possible.” If you tried to get involved, you were so far out of your depth, you could easily be a party to a crime as help prevent. Doing nothing was the way to cause as little harm as possible. Jake Gittes repeats this answer when asked what he did while working for the cops in Chinatown.
The film could have ended anywhere. Towne chose Chinatown to illustrate that Jake’s troubles began when he ignored his own advice, and that when faced with someone as powerful as Noah Cross, it’s safer, if less noble, to do as little as possible. It’s a cynical downer of an ending, to be sure, but the only ending a film like Chinatown could really have and be true to itself.
Note: If you would like to read more about the real history of the role that water played in the creation of the modern city of Los Angeles, check out the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. It was also turned into a PBS miniseries but that’s not currently available on home video.