Written by Robert Towne
and Roman Polanski (uncredited)

A neo-noir classic from the mid-seventies, “Chinatown” is a beautiful snake devouring its own tail.

Jake Gittes, a former L.A policeman, now owns a private detective agency dealing (mainly) with the maritally unfaithful. Among his clients is the beautiful Mrs Mulwray who  suspects her husband Hollis is having an affair. He is L.A.’s Chief Engineer in charge of water – an important position in a desert town in the middle of a drought.

Gittes follows Hollis. At first he seems to only be interested in water. Eventually  Gittes stumbles upon Hollis’s relationship with a much younger woman - photos of whom soon appear in the tabloids.

The plot turns in on itself, when another (real) Mrs Mulwray (Evelyn) appears at Gittes’ office suing him for slander. Who was the other Mrs Mulray? Before the matter can be resolved, Mulwray is found dead.

Evelyn now hires Gittes to cover for the story of her husband’s affair. Gittes is now intrigued and implicated in a cover up, and continues to investigate in order to find out what he has become involved in.

At this point we meet Lieutenant Luis Escobar – the police officer investigating the death of Mulwray. From him we learn about Gitte’s police officer past – and the difficulties he had solving crime in Chinatown – where connections are oblique and conclusions hard to draw.

Gittes is contacted by Ida Sessions, the actress who originally posed as Mrs Mulray, she phones Gittes to give him a clue about what is going on.

He follows a lead to farmland out west, and discovers there’s a scam going on in which land is being starved of water, and bought cheaply in fake names.

Then Gittes meets Evelyn’s father – her husband’s former business partner, Julian Cross. Cross and Mulwray used to own all the water in L.A.

Cross warns Gittes that his daughter is crazy – and offers him more if he can find the girl Mulray was having an affair with.

Finally, things seem to be coming together when Gittes finds Mulray’s glasses in a small salt water pond at his home. Plainly the man has been drowned.

Gittes summons the police, and confronts Evelyn, who tells him the glasses are not her husband’s. Pressed to explain herself, Evelyn reveals a family secret of incest and cover up. Her husband was not having an affair, but helping her to raise her daughter – who is also her sister – in order to protect her from Cross.

Cross soon turns up, and by the use of his bi-focal glasses, confirms that it is he who has drowned Mulray and disposed of the body – and it is Cross who has engineered this whole situation in order to get access to his (incestuous) daughter / granddaughter.

In a last minute dash – Gittes tries to help Evelyn and her daughter escape, but as fate would have it, all roads lead to Chinatown – where connections are oblique, and conclusions hard to draw. Too late to save Evelyn, Gittes finally understands everything.

Gittes’ relationship with Lieutenant Escobar, and other former police officers gives the film its name: they used to work together in Chinatown. As the title of the film, it’s obviously relevant, but a mystery in itself, since almost none of the action is actually set there.

The first mention of Chinatown is on page 39 when Jake asks Escobar:

You still throw Chinamen into
jail for spitting on the laundry?

You’re behind the times, Jake –
They’ve got steam irons now –
And I’m out of Chinatown.

Since when?

Since I made Lieutenant –

Hitting the Chinatown beat once an act, the next mention is on page 77 when Gittes tells Cross that he and Escobar used to work there. When it’s elaborated a couple of pages later another piece is added to the puzzle:

– You may think you know what
you’re dealing with — but
believe me, you don’t.
(GITTES is vaguely amused)
Why is that funny?

It’s what the D.A. used to tell
me about Chinatown

Was he right?

GITTES shrugs.

On page 102, Chinatown is again mentioned – this time to Evelyn in the context of a violent and confusing day… a small, but significant passage which encapsulates the story unraveling in front of us.

– You can’t always tell what’s going
on there — I thought I was keeping
someone from being hurt and
actually I ended up making sure
they were hurt.

Could you do anything about it?

Yeah — make sure I don’t find
myself in Chinatown anymore –

So Gittes is no longer on the police force – he’s a private detective doing his best to keep out of Chinatown. When our plot finally takes us there – our curiosity about Chinatown is resolved in an ironic tragedy. Although enigmatic, the damage which saw him leave the police force, is plainly re-enacted here with Evelyn, and confirmed by they last two speeches of the film:

You wanna do your partner the
biggest favor of his life? Take him
home. Just get him the hell out of here!

Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown.

Underpinning the whole drama (the river which runs through it) is life giving water. The story of two friends who build a fortune on water – dams and aqueducts.

Throughout the story there are images of both heat, and drought – talk about water restrictions and government measures to find more water.  There’s also a parallel theme of water being wasted. Soggy river beds which should be dry. A vagrant drowned in an aqueduct.  These are dismissed as run off – but Gittes is unconvinced.

As he digs further, he discovers that Hollis Mulwray, and Julian Cross established the dams and aqueducts in L.A. in 1912 – they owned the water supply - and had a falling out over the propriety of that.

Then we discover that water is not being diverted to the north west farm land, but instead is being withheld from there in order to drive the price of land down. In the end, we understand that Cross is behind this – and that Mulwray vehemently disagreed with him.  We also understand that Cross has won – and will make a fortune from the venture.

This is a thoroughly well written screenplay.  It is masterfully plotted, intelligently conceived and from a character perspective – everyone, even the most basic knife wielding thug is fully considered and distinctly drawn.

The subtle and effective use of wit is also appealing – these are fully fledged adults with a complex moral and ethical position in the world, and (in Gittes and Evelyn’s case) intelligent and wry senses of humour.

They do not have the fake bravado of super heroes, but the sandstone core of real people.

This film is written and directed with the languid style of summer, but, as the dramatic slowly temperature rises, we (the audience and the characters) are quietly roasted

Frequently the writer gives us a piece of the puzzle – only to turn that piece upside down to reveal a different shape and purpose. One simple example of this comes in the first scene:

I circled that dialogue for its own beauty – the leisurely setting of tone for a character I imagined I’d never see again -

I’ll pay the rest next trip –
we only caught sixty ton of
skipjack around San Benedict.
We hit a chubbasco, they don’t
pay you for skipjack the way
they do for tuna or albacore–

…yet Albacore turns out to be a viral clue, and the character Curly comes to the rescue at the end, able to pay out his debt to Gittes by helping Evelyn and her daughter escape.

This is a film for adults. The plotting is complex, the emotional notes are flawed and familiar. The characters are jaded, without being glib, but most impressively – they are funny.

May I speak frankly, Mrs. Mulwray?

You may if you can, Mr Gittes.


…are you alone, Mr Gittes

Isn’t everybody?


- You smug son of a bitch. My
husband’s so upset he sweats all
night! How do you think that makes
me feel?


Humour also covers all the dark material, as well – such as when Cross is trying to uncover Gitte’s motives for continuing to investigate:

How much are you charging her?

My usual fee — plus a bonus if I come up with any results

Are you sleeping with her? Come,
come, Mr. Gittes — you don’t have
to think about that to remember, do you?

If you want an answer to that
question I can always put one
of my men on the job. Good
afternoon, Mr. Cross.

The classic line from Chinatown is Evelyn’s revelation about the incestuous relationship with her father:

–she’s my sister–
(Gittes slaps her again)
–she’s my daughter–
(Gittes slaps her again)
–my sister.
(He hits her again)
My daughter, my sister.

I said I want the truth.

She’s my sister and my daughter.

Chinatown is a neo-noir classic. The gumshoe detective film should be dead, but here it is… morally complex and twice as twisted, and once again perpetrating the myth that L.A. is a beautiful desert that will steal your soul.

Yes -  and L.A. Confidential (immediately behind Chinatown on the IMDB to 250 films) comes to mind as a cousin – but why would you when you have the genius of Roman Polanski directing a perfect Jack Nicholson and an ice perfect Faye Dunaway.

TOP 101
Yes.  And for the script alone? Definitely. It rates behind The Godfather (Part 2) – which, having recently re-read and seen The Godfather (Part 2) is an absolute travesty. Chinatown is a far superior film, and screenplay.

I have a personal aversion to winking – I think it’s a self-conscious suspending of disbelief… this film has two!

Page 28: Gittes to Yelburton
Page 72: Pilot to Gittes

8.5/10 IMDB rating
#65/250 (immediately behind L.A. Confidential)
1975 1 Oscar (best screenplay) 10 other nominations
(against Godfather II)