Tribute review as today is Jack Nicholson’s 79th birthday.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Diane Ladd
Review by Tom Coatsworth
A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on to a scheme of murder that has something to do with water.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Original Screenplay
Nominated for 10 other OSCARS including Best Picture, Best Director (Polanski), Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Actress (Dunaway)
Polanski has considered this his greatest film and it’s hard to argue, many see it among the best of the 1970’s — a seminal decade for Hollywood. It’s difficult to say precisely what works with Chinatown except that everything works with Chinatown. It was nominated for 11 Oscars. Cinematography – it’s wonderful to look at – the gold of the California Dream contrasting with blacks and browns in nearly every frame. Robert Towne won the Oscar for screenplay. Chinatown is a treasure trove of talent: Jerry Goldsmith wrote and recorded the score in 3 weeks. (In his career he was nominated for 18 Oscars.) Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell and Ruby R. Levitt were nominated for Art Direction and Set Decor – between them 13 career Oscar nominations. Robert Evans produced: he specifically wanted a European take on this American story – hence the great Polanski. I can think of few films with as much depth of talent behind the camera; and then Nicholson and Dunaway starring at the peak of their charisma, and John Huston. With all of this fire power there might be an instinct to blast away, the restraint that is exercised is remarkable, an underplayed tone and pacing throughout that makes the film that much stronger and more memorable.
Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is a private investigator hired by Evelyn Mulwray to spy on her husband – she thinks he’s having an affair.
Hollis Mulwray is the head of Los Angeles ‘Water and Power’ – it’s the dustbowl 30’s – he’s a very powerful man. Jake tails him for a day and Mulwray visits a dry river bed and the seaside – he seems obsessed with water. Gittes is a hardened professional and former cop. But when he snaps photos of Mulwray and a young blonde at a water-park the pics end up in the papers — he’s been had. The following day the real Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) pays him a visit. She and her lawyer are none too pleased. It seems her husband has powerful enemies and they are using Gittes to smear him. But things aren’t as they seem and when Hollis Mulwray is discovered dead at the bottom of a drainage ditch Gittes is propelled into a vortex of murder and high intrigue.
He follows the dead mans lead and discovers someone is diverting water into the sea at night. It’s the middle of a drought. Water and Power claim they are diverting water to help the farmers and there is a little run off. Jake suspects the public is being manipulated into supporting a viaduct it doesn’t need. Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (Huston), steps into the picture. Cross is a wealthy tycoon, a former business partner of Hollis Mulwray. Huston plays Cross brilliantly against type. There is no growl or threat – only charm and wisdom and a hint of evil. He offers Gittes twice his usual fee to find Mulwray’s girlfriend.
Jake follows a hunch to the Hall of Records – half the county has changed hands in 6 months. He visits an orange grove and is beaten to a pulp by angry farmers – rather than help from Water and Power they have received nothing but threats and intimidation unless they sell their land. Evelyn comes to Jakes rescue, spirits him home — they become lovers. (This was not in the original script – here again Polanski pushed the film in the right direction.) But there is no happy ending for Mrs. Mulwray. She receives a phone call and must travel across town. Jake follows her. In a small house she has her husband’s girlfriend, held there apparently against her will. Jake confronts Evelyn, slaps a confession out of her. Evelyn admits the girl is her sister, her daughter, her sister and her daughter. “My father and I – understand? Or is it too tough for you?” Jake resolves to help Evelyn and her daughter escape the clutches of Cross and the police. They hide out in Chinatown – but for Evelyn there is no escape.
The water heist is inspired by true events that took place in the Owens Valley in the early part of the twentieth century. Valley owners were duped into selling land for a reclamation project that was actually a viaduct while land owners in the arid San Fernando Valley sold out for chump-change to insiders who knew where the water was going – the S.F. Valley. The Owens Valley subsequently dried up and is still a source of dispute. The genius of Townes script is how beautifully the personal story of Evelyn Mulwray mirrors the water plot and the doomed valley – Townes plot has the power of archetype. How unusual then to discover he was not pleased with the ending, that he and Polanski fought over it. Towne saw a happier ending. Polanski pushed for the tragic ending the film has today. He wrote it himself a day before shooting. Since then Towne has applauded the decision.
The script was written with Nicholson in mind: he won a Golden Globe and was propelled to leading man status. John Huston is brilliant. But Evelyn Mulwray is the emotional core of the film and Dunaway has brought her to life as no one could. Without her Chinatown, for all its beauty, would be an exquisite Venetian Fountain without the water.