Cast & Crew
While investigating adultery, amoral detective Jake Gittes stumbles onto a murder. Set in Los Angeles, he unravels a scheme to control all the water coming into the city.
C. O. Erickson
Lee De Broux
Mary Wale Brown
W Stewart Campbell
C. O. Erickson
C. O. Erickson
Howard W. Koch Jr.
Ruby R Levitt
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Music Original Dramatic Score
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
Chinatown - Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN
Writer Robert Towne's drama of 1930s Los Angeles is much more than a look back at old romantic thriller conventions. Following in the footsteps of classic noirs that yearned for lost hopes and ideals, Chinatown constructs a noir metaphor for the Garden of Eden. In this case, the Garden has been overrun by the Devil. The water to make it grow has been stolen by political powers intent on 'owning' the future, in perpetuity.
Synopsis: Ambitious detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) puts on airs but is humiliated when he's tricked into publicizing an indiscretion on the part of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the man in charge of Los Angeles' water supply. Mulwray's wife Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) sues Jake, but then relents and hires him to find out who wants to discredit her husband. It doesn't take long for Jake to uncover a sinister plot by persons unknown to make millions from a drought, while establishing private ownership of the San Fernando Valley. The trail leads to Evelyn's father Noah Cross (John Huston), a land baron obsessed with power and control.
Chinatown captures the sense of a sick and disillusioned Los Angeles, a sleepy town with big secrets to hide. A private dick in the classic Raymond Chandler tradition, Jake Gittes claims that he's an ethical businessman and even starts a fistfight over his reputation. But Jake also nurses a fatal streak of idealism. He hides it from the man who really knows him, Lieutenant Lou Escobar of the L.A.P.D.. Something happened a number of years ago in Chinatown that resulted in Jake's ignominious departure from the force. All of Jake's snappy dialogue and feigned sophistication can't hide the fact that he's traumatized over the fate of a woman he wanted to protect. Gittes thinks he can redeem himself by not repeating his mistakes with the mysterious, potentially dangerous Evelyn Mulwray. He's smarter now, and has little trouble uncovering Noah Cross's diabolical real estate conspiracy. But Gittes tells the police too many lies and makes critical mistakes. His bigotry is a weakness: he can snap out curses in Chinese, but fumbles a clue offered by a 'jabbering' Japanese gardener. Worse still, Gittes foolishly underestimates his enemy's deadly reach.
They say that only foreigners can really nail the American ambience, and Roman Polanski finds the essence of 1930s Los Angeles on every street corner. For some scenes designer Richard Sylbert had only to drop some television aerials and make sure the curbs were correctly painted. A compact apartment building serving as the home of sometime actress Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) resembles the Alvarado courtyard address where William Desmond Taylor was murdered. A dry wash and an orange grove represent the San Fernando Valley. Just as 'foretold' in Chinatown, the Valley has now become an endless residential development. Mulwray's Beverly Hills (or Los Feliz) estate, Echo Park, various reservoirs and Avalon Bay haven't substantially changed, but Polanski evokes the past with even better signifiers, like the sight of a boiling radiator through a barbershop window and the chi-chi cars in the valet lot of the Downtown Biltmore. As if acknowledging the jest that L.A. is some kind of unplanned, unconscious urban mistake, a hideaway motel carries the name Macondo, a lift from Gabriel Gárcia Márquez' novel of "realismo mágico", 100 Years of Solitude.
Jack Nicholson was already a movie star but earned full credibility in Chinatown; for the first time we saw his range and felt the full gravity behind his boyish features and short-sighted gaze. Jake Gittes isn't quite as smart as he thinks he is. We don't blame him for not catching all the twists laid before him and he would have done much better if he were less cocky about his ability to snooker people. He tries to snooker Lt. Escobar one time too many.
Jake receives a knightly battle scar in the form of a slit nostril. He wears his bandage proudly, not realizing that the gash is really the Mark of Cain. The nervous, imperious Evelyn Mulwray also has a flaw, a discolored spot in the iris of one of her eyes. The 'flaw' is more than an excuse not to look Jake in the eye. Eye color is hereditary, and Evelyn's psychological disturbance has everything to do with shameful hereditary secrets. Los Angeles is a primitive land where the powerful break taboos, letting succeeding generations deal with the unspeakable consequences.
The cost of idealism and innocence always runs high in Polanski films, and Chinatown is no exception. Jake Gittes is 'nosy', a lesson he's taught with a switchblade knife. The flaw in Evelyn's eye becomes a horrible, perverse punishment.
John Huston's charming monster Noah Cross is the true face behind the powerful 'Big Daddy' cliché. Robert Towne fudges the details and the decade but the designers of Los Angeles did indeed conspire to steal the water supply of a far-off county and then withhold it until the drought-plagued San Fernando Valley was 'under new ownership.' Then the Valley was miraculously incorporated into the City proper, and all that water was suddenly available for agriculture at bargain rates. Cross calls this 'buying the future' but Chinatown compares it to a rape, after which the rapist is allowed to profit from the misery of his victims. Our history books taught us about Father Serra, John Sutter and the gold rush, but Chinatown's message is that the real history can be found swept under the rug.
John Alonzo's wonderful cinematography resurrects the allure of Venetian blinds and also finds beauty in the textured plaster walls of Evelyn's 'Spanish Colonial' house. He evokes an even older California in a brief glimpse of Old Mexico parade riders practicing on Noah Cross's Catalina ranch. Polanski begins the movie with a noir joke: The Academy-ratio sepia-toned main titles float in the center of the Panavision frame, and then dissolve to the film's first color shot, a close-up of a B&W photo.
DVD fans were vocal in their displeasure with Paramount's previous disc of Chinatown. This new enhanced transfer looks much more solid and detailed, with fewer mushy greens. Audio tracks are available in a 5.1 stereo remix, the better to appreciate Jerry Goldsmith's sublime score, with additional original mono mixes in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles are in Eng/Fr/Spanish.
The killer extra is a relaxed, authoritative new Laurent Bouzereau documentary, broken up into four chapters. Jack Nicholson is an enthusiastic participant and producer Robert Evans clearly thinks Chinatown is his best film. Roman Polanski is interviewed in Paris about the 'ordinary job' that turned into one of his favorites. Especially well handled is the dispute between Polanski and author Robert Towne over the film's ending. Towne wanted a finish similar to his beginning, a replay of The Maltese Falcon. Polanski felt the finale needed something even darker. Chinatown follows the Polanski rule that, no matter how badly we think one of his films will end, the ending is even worse.
The Chinatown posters always looked strange, but the disc's cover design is exceptionally ugly.
For more information about Chinatown, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order Chinatown, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Chinatown - Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN
Noble Willingham (1931-2004)
Born on August 31, 1931 in Mineola, Texas, Willingham was educated at North Texas State University where he earned a degree in Economics. He later taught government and economics at a high school in Houston, leaving his life-long dreams of becoming an actor on hold until the opportunity presented itself. Such an opportunity happened when in late 1970, Peter Bogdonovich was doing some on-location shooting in south Texas for The Last Picture Show (1971); at the urging of some friends, he audition and won a small role in the picture. From there, Willingham slowly began to find work in some prominent films, including Bogdonovich's Paper Moon (1973), and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). Around this time, Willingham kept busy with many guest appearances on a variety of popular shows: Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Waltons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Rockford Files and several others.
Critics didn't take notice of his acting abilities until he landed the role of Leroy Mason, the soulless plant manager who stares down Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979). Few could forget him screaming at her, "Lady, I want you off the premises now!" with unapologetic malice. It may have not been a likable character, but after this stint, better roles came along, most notably the corrupt Dr. Fenster in Robert Redford's prison drama Brubaker (1980); and the evil sheriff in the thriller The Howling (1981).
By the late '80s, Willingham was an in-demand character actor, and he scored in three hit films: a border patrol sergeant - a great straight man to Cheech Marin - in the ethnic comedy Born in East L.A.; his wonderfully avuncular performance as General Taylor, the military brass who was sympathetic to an unorthodox disc jockey in Saigon, played by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam (both 1987); and his good 'ole boy villainy in the Rutger Hauer action flick Blind Fury (1988). His performances in these films proved that if nothing else, Willingham was a solid backup player who was adept at both comedy and drama.
His best remembered role will no doubt be his six year run as the genial barkeep C.D. Parker opposite Chuck Norris in the popular adventure series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-99). However, film reviewers raved over his tortured performance as a foul-mouthed, bigoted boat salesman who suffers a traffic downfall in the little seen, but searing indie drama The Corndog Man (1998); the role earned Willingham a nomination for Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards and it showed that this ably supporting performer had enough charisma and talent to hold his own in a lead role.
In 2000, Willingham tried his hand at politics when he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Democrat Max Dandlin in a congressional campaign in east Texas. After the experience, Willingham returned to acting filming Blind Horizon with Val Kilmer in 2003. The movie is to be released later this year. Willingham is survived by his wife, Patti Ross Willingham; a son, John Ross McGlohen; two daughters, Stari Willingham and Meghan McGlohen; and a grandson.
by Michael T. Toole
Noble Willingham (1931-2004)
You're dumber than you think I think you are.- Jake Gittes
So there's this guy Walsh, do you understand? He's tired of screwin' his wife... So his friend says to him, "Hey, why don't you do it like the Chinese do?" So he says, "How do the Chinese do it?" And the guy says, "Well, the Chinese, first they screw a little bit, then they stop, then they go and read a little Confucius, come back, screw a little bit more, then they stop again, go and they screw a little bit... then they go back and they screw a little bit more and then they go out and they contemplate the moon or something like that. Makes it more exciting." So now, the guy goes home and he starts screwin' his own wife, see. So he screws her for a little bit and then he stops, and he goes out of the room and reads Life Magazine. Then he goes back in, he starts screwin' again. He says, "Excuse me for a minute, honey." He goes out and he smokes a cigarette. Now his wife is gettin' sore as hell. He comes back in the room, he starts screwin' again. He gets up to start to leave again to go look at the moon. She looks at him and says, "Hey, whats the matter with ya. You're screwin' just like a Chinaman!"- Jake Gittes
Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.- Noah Cross
I hope you don't mind. I believe they should be served with the head.- Noah Cross
Fine... long as you don't serve the chicken that way.- Jake Gittes
Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.- Jake Gittes
the hood who slits Jake's nose.
The scene where Polanski slits Jack Nicholson's nose was extremely complex to film, and the two men involved got so tired of explaining how it was done that they began to claim Nicholson's nose was actually cut.
Jake Gittes was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
The original script was over 300 pages.
At one point, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski picked a portable TV from Nicholson's dressing room and threw it out the window. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Laker basketball games.
Re-released in United States November 2, 1990
Re-released in United States on Video November 23, 1999
Released in United States March 1979
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States March 1998
Shown at Santa Barbara International Film Festival March 5-15, 1998.
25th Anniversary Edition video release includes never-before-seen interviews with Roman Polanski, Robert Evans and Robert Towne.
Selected in 1991 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Re-released in Paris May 29, 1991.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1974
Re-released in United States November 2, 1990 (Los Angeles)
Re-released in United States on Video November 23, 1999 (25th Anniversary Edition in both pan-and-scan & letterbox editions)
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 50-Hour Mighty MovieMarathon: Mystery and Suspense) March 14-30, 1979.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in Los Angeles (Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex) as part of program "Femmes Fatales Follow Them at Your Own Risk!" October 5 - December 15, 1996.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies" Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)
Released in United States March 1998 (Shown at Santa Barbara International Film Festival March 5-15, 1998.)
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1974