Film school professors often cite the script for "Chinatown" as a "perfect" screenplay. It didn't start out so perfect. After reading an early draft, Roman Polanski met screenwriter Robert Towne at Nate 'n Al's deli in Beverly Hills. The director praised the script's characters and dialogue, but said its plot was convoluted — nearly incomprehensible.
Towne's original script had a happy ending of sorts: To protect her child, Evelyn Mulwray kills her evil father, Noah Cross. But Polanski insisted it was Evelyn who must die. In the book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Towne recalls: "Roman's argument was, "That's life. Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had." (Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, had been murdered by the Manson Family in 1969.)
Jack Nicholson was always the top pick to play private detective Jake Gittes, but producer Robert Evans wanted to cast Jane Fonda — seen here in the 1971 thriller "Klute" — as the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray. And even Fonda wasn't Evans' first choice. He had planned to give the role to his wife, Ali MacGraw, until she dumped him for Steve McQueen, her costar in "The Getaway."
Although they clashed throughout the filming of "Chinatown," Polanski later wrote that he liked Dunaway for the role because of "her special brand of 'retro' beauty." The prewar style of her red lipstick and penciled-on eyebrows in the film evoked Polanski's memory of his beautiful mother, who died in Auschwitz.
In his cameo as a punk who cuts Jake Gittes' nose, Polanski used a real switchblade with a hinged tip that would retract under the slightest pressure — provided that he held the right side up. Nicholson checked repeatedly to make sure the knife was held properly. Observers say the fear he displayed on screen was real.
As he slashed with the switchblade, Polanski squeezed a bulb filled with "blood" — a technique that worked seamlessly on the first take. Even so, he did about a dozen takes. As Nicholson called him a "Polack" and told him to watch what he was doing, the director just smiled.
While shooting a scene in a downtown L.A. restaurant, Polanski noticed a strand of hair sticking out from Dunaway's hairdo, catching the light. Her hairstylist couldn't tame it —the hair kept popping back up — so Polanski walked behind the actress and pulled it out of her head. Dunaway stormed off the set.
Although "Chinatown" is set in 1937, the story was inspired by the California Water Wars, which date back to the early 20th century, when Los Angeles built an aqueduct to move water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. To pave the way for that project — which would ultimately expand the city — L.A. officials obtained water rights from farmers and ranchers through what author Marc Reisner calls "chicanery" and "subterfuge."
Despite their friendship, Nicholson and Polanski also clashed. It happened when the actor delayed a scene to watch the end of an L.A. Lakers game. Afterward, Polanski went to Nicholson's trailer, tried to break his TV with a mop and then threw it out the door. Nicholson tore off his clothes, got into his car naked and left the set. Polanski followed him. At a red light, they turned to each other and burst out laughing.
When Noah Cross (John Huston) asks Jake Gittes, during their lunch at the Albacore Club, if he's sleeping with Cross's daughter Evelyn, the line resonates on two levels. Nicholson's widely publicized relationship with Huston's daughter, Angelica, began in 1973, and she was on the set that day. When this scene was shot, Nicholson was meeting her father for the first time.
Jack Vernon, who played the director of the Mar Vista Rest Home, had never acted before. He was a boutique owner who'd sold Polanski the "Edwardian finery" he wore at his 1968 wedding to Sharon Tate.
The late Jerry Goldsmith, who had created soundtracks for directors like Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger, was brought in at the eleventh hour because Robert Evans was unhappy with the original "Chinatown" score by Phillip Lambro. Goldsmith composed and recorded a completely new score, remembered for its haunting trumpet solos, in just 10 days.
Another script change: Polanski added intimacy to the scene in which Evelyn cleans Jake's nose wound — and he notices a flaw in her iris — so the two would naturally end up in bed.
This is also the scene in which Jake talks candidly with Evelyn about his experiences as a police officer in Chinatown. It comes across as the most intimate moment in the film — despite the hovering presence of the director.
Katherine Mulwray (Belinda Palmer) grows up thinking that Evelyn is her older sister, though Dunaway's character finally confesses: "She's my sister and my daughter." Soon after the film was released, Jack Nicholson learned that June Nicholson, the woman he'd grown up believing to be his sister, was actually his mother.
As Robert Towne noted, the courtly manner John Huston gave to Noah Cross only makes the character more menacing, especially when he tells Jake Gittes, "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything."
In Towne's original screenplay, Chinatown was purely a metaphor. Polanski argued that, as he wrote in his autobiography, "unless we set at least one scene in L.A.'s real-life Chinatown, we'd be cheating." That scene became the last one.
The film alludes to the classic Greek tragedy "Oedipus Rex," especially at the end, when Evelyn's eye is shot out. (Here, Dunaway touches up her makeup in preparation for that final scene.)
After the release of "Chinatown," Robert Evans said in an interview that Polanski, as the director recalls in his autobiography, was "brilliant if channeled properly" — but that too often he surrounded himself with sycophants, "and then his films turn out badly." Once friends, Evans and Polanski never worked together again.
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
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