Chinatown (1974 film)

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Theatrical release poster by Jim Pearsall
Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Robert Towne
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Edited by Sam O'Steen
Long Road Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • June 20, 1974 (1974-06-20)
Running time
131 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6 million[2]
Box office $29.2 million (North America)[3]

Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir mystery film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was inspired by the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century, by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley. The Robert Evans production, a Paramount Pictures release, was the director's last film in the United States and features many elements of film noir, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama.

In 1991, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for films that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and it is frequently listed as among the best in world cinema.[4][5][6] The 1975 Academy Awards saw it nominated eleven times, with an Oscar going to Robert Towne for Best Original Screenplay. The Golden Globe Awards honored it for Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute placed it second among mystery films in 2008.

A sequel, The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, again starring Nicholson, who also directed, with Robert Towne returning to write the screenplay. The film failed to generate the acclaim of its predecessor.


A woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray hires private investigator J. J. "Jake" Gittes to survey her husband, Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes tails him, hears him publicly oppose the creation of a new reservoir, and shoots photographs of him with a young woman, which are published on the front page of the following day's paper. Back at his office, Gittes is confronted by a woman who informs him she is the real Evelyn Mulwray, and that he can expect a lawsuit.

Realizing he was set up, Gittes assumes that Mulwray's husband is the real target. Before he can question him, Lieutenant Lou Escobar fishes Mulwray, drowned, from a freshwater reservoir. Under retainer to Mrs. Mulwray, Gittes investigates his suspicions of murder and notices that, although huge quantities of water are released from the reservoir every night, the land is almost dry. Gittes is warned off by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill and a henchman, who slashes Gittes's nose. Back at his office, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, who identifies herself as the imposter Mrs. Mulwray. She is afraid to identify her employer, but tells Gittes to check the day's obituaries.

Gittes learns that Mulwray was once the business partner of his wife's wealthy father, Noah Cross. Over lunch at his personal club, Cross warns Gittes that he does not understand the forces at work, and offers to double Gittes's fee to search for Mulwray's missing mistress. At the hall of records, Gittes discovers that much of the Northwest Valley has changed ownership. Investigating the valley, he is attacked by angry landowners, who believe he is an agent of the water department attempting to force them out by sabotaging their water supply.

Gittes deduces that the water department is drying the land so it can be bought at a reduced price, and that Mulwray was murdered when he discovered the plan. He discovers that a former retirement home resident is one of the valley's new landowners, and seemingly purchased the property a week after his death. Evelyn and Gittes bluff their way into the home and confirm that the real estate deals are surreptitiously completed in the names of its residents.

After fleeing Mulvihill and his thugs, Gittes and Evelyn hide at Evelyn's house and sleep together. Early in the morning, Evelyn has to leave suddenly; she warns Gittes that her father is dangerous. Gittes follows her car to a house, where he spies her through the windows comforting Mulwray's mistress. He accuses Evelyn of holding the woman against her will, but she confesses that she is her sister.

The next day, an anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions's apartment; he finds her murdered and Escobar waiting for his arrival. Escobar tells him the coroner's report found salt water in Mulwray's lungs, indicating that he did not drown in the freshwater reservoir. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder and tells Gittes to produce her quickly. At Evelyn's mansion, Gittes finds her servants packing her things. He realizes her garden pond is salt water and discovers a pair of bifocals in it. He confronts Evelyn about her "sister"; after Gittes slaps her, she admits that the woman, Katherine, is her sister and her daughter: her father raped her when she was fifteen. She says that the eyeglasses are not Mulwray's, as he did not wear bifocals.

Gittes arranges for the women to flee to Mexico and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown. He summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal. Cross admits his intention to annex the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes accuses Cross of murdering Mulwray. Cross takes the bifocals and he and his men force Gittes at gunpoint to drive them to the women. When they reach the Chinatown address, the police are already there and detain Gittes. When Cross approaches Katherine, Evelyn shoots him in the arm and drives away with Katherine. The police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released. One of them urges: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."


Jack Nicholson as J. J. "Jake" Gittes. Producer Robert Evans believes the film cemented Nicholson's image as one of Hollywood's top leading men.[7]



In 1971 producer Robert Evans offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he could not better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Instead, Towne asked for $25,000 from Evans to write his own story, Chinatown, to which Evans agreed.[7][8]

Chinatown is set in 1937 and portrays the manipulation of a critical municipal resource—water—by a cadre of shadowy oligarchs. It was the first part of Towne's planned trilogy about the character J.J. Gittes, the foibles of the Los Angeles power structure, and the subjugation of public good by private greed.[9] The second part, The Two Jakes, was about another grab for a natural resource—oil—with a thicker-torsoed Gittes in the 1940s. It was directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990, but the second film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make Gittes vs. Gittes,[10] about the third finite resource—land—in Los Angeles, circa 1968.[9]


The character of Hollis Mulwray refers to the career of William Mulholland (1855–1935),[citation needed] the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct,[citation needed] which brought Owens Valley water to Los Angeles. For reasons of engineering and safety, Mulwray opposes the dam that Noah Cross and the city want, arguing he will not repeat his previous mistake as when his dam broke, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This alludes to the disaster of the St. Francis Dam, personally inspected by Mulholland on the day of its catastrophic failure just before midnight on March 12, 1928.[11] As many as 600 people (including 42 school-aged children), died that day and the Santa Clara River Valley, including the town of Santa Paula, was inundated with flood water, the result being the end of Mulholland's career.[12][13]


Towne wrote the screenplay with Jack Nicholson in mind.[7] He took the title (and the exchange, "What did you do in Chinatown?" / "As little as possible") from a Hungarian vice cop who had worked in Chinatown and explained to the writer that the complicated array of dialects and gangs in Los Angeles's Chinatown made it impossible for the police to know whether their interventions were helping victims or furthering their exploitation.[7]

Polanski learned of the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been searching for a suitable joint project. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct for his European vision of the United States, which Evans believed would be darker and more cynical. Polanski, a few years removed from the murder of his wife and unborn child in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return but was persuaded on the strength of the script.[7]

Evans wanted Cross to die and Evelyn Mulwray to survive. The producer and director argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special," Polanski said, "not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die."[14] They parted ways over this dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene a few days before it was shot.[7]

The original script was more than 180 pages and included a narration by Gittes; Polanski cut that and reordered the story so the audience and Gittes unraveled the mysteries at the same time.

Characters and casting[edit]

  • "J. J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
  • "Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to Towne, intended to initially seem the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually made the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role; but Polanski insisted on Dunaway.[7]
  • "Noah Cross": Towne said that Huston was, after Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film and that he made the Cross character menacing, through his courtly performance.[7]
  • Polanski appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose. The effect was accomplished with a special knife which indeed could have cut Nicholson's nose if Polanski had not held it correctly.


William A. Fraker accepted the cinematographer position from Polanski when Paramount agreed. He had worked with the studio previously in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Robert Evans, never consulted about the decision, insisted that the offer be rescinded since he felt pairing Polanski and Fraker again would create a team with too much control over the project and complicate the production. Fraker was replaced by John A. Alonzo.[citation needed]

In keeping with a technique Polanski attributes to Raymond Chandler, all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through the main character's eyes; for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and fades in when he awakens. Gittes appears in every scene of the film.[7]


Film score by Jerry Goldsmith
Released 1974
Genre Jazz, soundtrack
Label Varèse Sarabande

Jerry Goldsmith composed and recorded the film's music score in ten days, after producer Robert Evans rejected Phillip Lambro's original effort at the last minute. It received an Academy Award nomination and ranks ninth on the American Film Institute's top 25 American film scores.[15] Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal[16] and filmmaker David Lynch have both praised it.[17] Goldsmith's score, with haunting trumpet solos, by Hollywood studio musician and MGM first trumpet Uan Rasey, was released through ABC Records and features twelve tracks at a running time just over thirty minutes. It was later reissued on CD by the Varèse Sarabande label.

  1. "Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title)"
  2. "Noah Cross"
  3. "Easy Living"
  4. "Jake and Evelyn"
  5. "I Can't Get Started"
  6. "The Last of Ida"
  7. "The Captive"
  8. "The Boy on a Horse"
  9. "The Way You Look Tonight"
  10. "The Wrong Clue"
  11. "J.J. Gittes"
  12. "Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)"

Portions of the Phillip Lambro effort can be heard in the original trailer for the film. Lambro felt he deserved to retain the rights to his work after it was rejected. Paramount granted his wish, on condition that he could not release it under the title Chinatown. Lambro's score was eventually issued by Perseverance Records on the 2012 CD Los Angeles, 1937. One may notice that it tries to evoke the 1930s more than Goldsmith's score, something Robert Evans envisioned.


The film earned $17 million at the box office outside North America, which Evans said was a million dollars more than it earned in North America.[18]

Roger Ebert listed it under his "Great Movies", saying that Nicholson's performance was "key in keeping Chinatown from becoming just a genre crime picture", along with Towne's screenplay, concluding that the film "seems to settle easily beside the original noirs".[19] Vincent Canby of The New York Times was not impressed with the screenplay as compared to the film's predecessors, saying: "Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep", but noted Nicholson's performance, calling it the film's "major contribution to the genre".[20]


Towne's screenplay has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often cited as one of the best examples of the craft.[9][21][22] Polanski decided on the fatal final scene, changing Towne's idea of a happy ending.

Chinatown brought more public awareness to the land dealings and disputes over water rights, which arose while drawing Los Angeles' water supply from the Owens Valley in the 1910s.[23] Margaret Leslie Davis, in her 1993 book Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, says the sexually charged film is a metaphor for the "rape" of the Owens Valley and notes that it fictionalizes Mulholland, while concealing the strong public support for Southern California's water projects.

The film holds a 98% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 60 reviews.[24] Metacritic assigned a rating of 86/100 based on 10 critic reviews.[25]

Awards and honors[edit]

Academy Awards – 1974[edit]

The film won one Academy Award of the eleven total nomination categories:[26][27]


Golden Globes – 1974[edit]


Other awards[edit]

American Film Institute recognition

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Chinatown". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved September 21, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Film History Milestones - 1974". Retrieved July 9, 2015. 
  3. ^ "Chinatown (1974)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 17, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Pulver, Andrew (2010-10-22). "Chinatown: the best film of all time". The Guardian (London). 
  5. ^ 100 Greatest Films
  6. ^ "Greatest film ever: Chinatown wins by a nose". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2010-10-24. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Robert Towne, Roman Polanksi and Robert Evans (April 11, 2007). Retrospective interview from Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition) (DVD). Paramount. ASIN B000UAE7RW. 
  8. ^ * Thomson, David (2005). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. ISBN 0-375-40016-8
  9. ^ a b c The Hollywood Interview. "Robert Towne: The Hollywood Interview". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  10. ^ "'My sister! My daughter!' and other tales of 'Chinatown' -". CNN. 2009-09-29. Retrieved 2010-04-28. 
  11. ^ Transcript of Testimony and Verdict of the Coroner's Jury In the Inquest Over Victims of St. Francis Dam Disaster
  12. ^ Pollack, Alan (March–April 2010). "President's Message" (PDF). The Heritage Junction Dispatch (Santa Clara Valley Historical Society). 
  13. ^ * Reisner, Marc (1986). Cadillac Desert. ISBN 0-670-19927-3
  14. ^ "Chinatown". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  15. ^ AFI's 100 YEARS OF FILM SCORES at the American Film Institute. Retrieved 2011-02-18.
  16. ^ "Log In". The Wall Street Journal. 
  17. ^ "David Lynch tweets". The Guardian (London). [dead link]
  18. ^ THE OVERSEAS CONNECTION: TAKING STARS TO MARKET Wilson, John M. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Mar 1979: o3.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Chinatown". Retrieved 14 January 2016. 
  20. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Chinatown (1974)". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 January 2016. 
  21. ^ Writers Guild of America, West. "101 Greatest Screenplays". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  22. ^ Writers Store. "Chinatown & The Last Detail: 2 Screenplays". Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  23. ^, Chinatown Revisited, April 30, 2005, retrieved November 24, 2010
  24. ^ "Chinatown". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Chinatown Reviews, Ratings, Credits, and More". Metacritic. 1974-06-20. Retrieved 2012-07-20. 
  26. ^ "The 47th Academy Awards (1975) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-02. 
  27. ^ "NY Times: Chinatown". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-29. 
  • Easton, Michael (1998) Chinatown (B.F.I. Film Classics series). Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-85170-532-4.
  • Thomson, David (2004). The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40016-8.
  • Towne, Robert (1997). Chinatown and the Last Detail: 2 Screenplays. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3401-7.
  • Tuska, Jon (1978). The Detective in Hollywood. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company. ISBN 0-385-12093-1.

External links[edit]