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Chinatown (1974)

Tell me the story again, please.

Very well, there was this detective in Los Angeles, Jake Gittes, as honest as he could be after years with the LAPD. But he had had trouble in Chinatown and so retired into independent operation. Then he was set up, and you have to realize that he was sought out in just the way that Scottie was in Vertigo. Someone picked him to receive the story that Hollis Mulwray was having an affair. Trace it back and you'll see it was all a cruel design. Jake Gittes did his best, but he was as much damage as he was good, because he fell in love on the job with a woman who was such trouble it smelled like gangrene. And so, finally, the bad man, Noah Cross, was left in charge, and they led Jake away to some hiding hole and they whispered in his ear that it was all "Chinatown." I really don't see why you love the story so much.

It was a story that Robert Towne, an Angeleno, dreamed up for his pal Jack Nicholson to play. And another friend, Robert Evans, would produce it at Paramount. But Evans thought that Roman Polanski should direct, and Polanski battled with Towne over the script—it had to be clearer and tougher. Towne had had a gentler ending, with less death. But Polanski knew it was a story that had to end terribly—so no one forgot. The director won, and the picture worked with its very bleak ending.

What's more, the picture worked in every way you could think of. Faye Dunaway was the woman, and she was lovely but flawed and incapable of being trusted. John Huston was Noah Cross, and the more you see the film, the better you know that that casting is crucial, because Cross is so attractive, so winning, so loathsome. And the rest of the cast was a treat: Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Burt Young, Belinda Palmer, and the others. John Alonso shot it. Richard Sylbert was the production designer. Sam O'Steen edited the film. Jerry Goldsmith delivered a great score. The craft work, the details, are things to dream on. We are in 1937. And don't forget Polanski's own little bit of being himself.

So it's a perfect thriller, and a beautiful film noir in color. Moreover, if you care to look into how William Mulholland once brought the water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, it is a piece of local history. But with this extra aspect—that accommodation of the history of southern California itself, and the fable of how sometimes power and corruption make life and the future possible—you also get another reflection on filmmaking in that world: It is that you can do very good work, work so full of affection and detail and invention that you can live with it over the years, but in the end the system will fuck you over and someone will whisper in your ear that you are not to mind, because

"It's Chinatown."

And that's how it worked out. There had been a trilogy in the reasonably honest mind of Robert Towne. They let him make the first part near enough to his own dream so that he would always know it could have been. And then they crushed him on the second (The Two Jakes)—blew it straight to hell—so no one had the heart ever to ask about the third.

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