CHINATOWN. Roman Polanski’s Noir Masterpiece Explained

Water. The most important resource on Earth, the key to all life. The cause of wars and truces throughout human history.

Jerzy Babarowski

14 June 2024

CHINATOWN. Roman Polanski's Noir Masterpiece Explained

It covers over seventy percent of our globe, so it would seem there should be enough for everyone. Not always. Especially when the city that needs it is on the edge of a desert and is called Los Angeles.

In 1974, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne in Chinatown showed what happens when you mix it with another important resource of our civilization – money – and how many people will pay for this explosive mix.

View from the Desk

J.J. Gittes is a private detective tracking the unfaithful spouses of his clients. He knows his job doesn’t make him popular in the city, but he’s good at it, so he has no intention of changing. He takes a job, follows the victim, snaps photos, and delivers them to the client. Then there’s the mandatory show of jealousy from the spouse, and he gets his hard-earned pay. He just has to make sure his clients don’t chew up his new blinds. He’s arrogant, ironic, sarcastic, vulgar, selfish, explosive, and overly confident. He’s also kind-hearted and honest, with a shadow of a tragedy in his eyes that shattered his world long ago. He used to be a different kind of detective – a cop – and something happened then. Something neither he nor his friends want to remember.

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

The tragic antihero, seemingly straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel, is played by Jack Nicholson, though Humphrey Bogart could just as easily have taken on the role. Although, in that case, Gittes’ irony and confidence might not have been as convincing. Nicholson turns him into a pulsating, simmering magma of emotions, ready to explode at any moment, unnaturally expressive – his sardonic smile is a bit too crooked, and the memory of tragedy in his eyes is too clear.

Taking a job from a certain Evelyn Mulwray, Gittes has no idea that what seems like an innocent task of following a suspected unfaithful husband will lead him to uncover a conspiracy aimed not only at the residents of Los Angeles but also at the large agricultural community in the San Fernando Valley north of the city. He also doesn’t know how much he has to lose in this game and how his deceptive confidence might lead him astray…

This is also the main theme of Chinatown: the abuse of privileges by those with access to power and money and a kind of “rape”: both of the land and – as revealed at the end of the film – of one’s own daughter. In this sense, Roman Polanski’s film belongs to the tradition of political thrillers, where the premise is the possibility that those in power do not use it for positive purposes, but for personal enrichment, using the most despicable means to cover their tracks. The shadow of Chinatown can be seen in films like Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men two years later, or even Wojciech Smarzowski’s Traffic Department.

Chinatown Darrell Zwerling

But Chinatown is not a strictly political film, and certainly not a thriller. It’s a black crime film, a film noir, or as modern critics might call it, neo-noir. However, it’s far from the empty stylistic exercises many contemporary filmmakers indulge in when they have a penchant for the genre. Their goal is usually to achieve a vaguely defined sense of “nostalgia” at the expense of content, characters, plot, and often the film’s very meaning, which is something neither the screenwriter nor the director of Chinatown could or intended to allow.

In the Shadow of the Past

Few people know that Chinatown was inspired by real events. It’s a film about the past and dealing with the past (though this is even more emphasized in the sequel, which will be discussed later). The two powerful minds behind the creation of this work had to deal with their pasts, and if anyone deserves credit for Chinatown becoming a permanent part of film history, it’s them.

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

In 1971, Paramount studio head, producer Robert Evans, offered a large sum of money to successful screenwriter Robert Towne to write a screenplay adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Towne declined and instead offered to write an original crime story. The plot was to be about the past and sins of his hometown, Los Angeles, but instead of a cheap emotional attack, Towne’s story is filled with love and genuine concern for the fate of the metropolis. Its goal might not be absolution, but a kind of reckoning with the past and drawing society’s attention to what is more than obvious to us living today – Beware of the guys behind the desks. Sometimes they don’t care about you at all, sometimes all they think about is money and their own ego. Chinatown was one of the first films to say this so bluntly.

Chinatown John Huston

Towne’s film is woven around a series of events known as the California Water Wars. The story centers on the relationship and conflict between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley and the local farming community. In the 1860s, the first settlers from the east arrived on the west coast and, after driving out the Native Americans in 1863, began colonizing. The pace of colonization increased rapidly in the 1870s and 1880s, mainly thanks to the nearby river, which provided favorable conditions for farming and livestock. By the mid-1890s, most of the valley had been purchased, but there was no irrigation system to allow farmers a decent living.

At this point, two characters, who would become key players in both Los Angeles history and the upcoming conflict, entered the picture: Mayor Frederick Eaton and his friend William Mulholland, head of the newly formed Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. These officials had a radically different vision for the city than their predecessors – they dreamed of a vast metropolis, much larger than at the beginning of the 20th century. But like any city on the edge of a desert, it needed one thing for growth – water. And it so happened that the nearby Owens Valley was full of it. There was only one problem – it didn’t belong to the city. Eaton and Mulholland decided to change that.


The events in Chinatown seem to be based on the events of the first decade of the 20th century when both men tried to remove farmers from the valley and acquire water rights by any means necessary. Abuse of privileges, lies, bribery, speculation, dividing the farming community in the valley, and other crimes – this was their daily bread. They even managed to deceive the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which was supposed to build a proper irrigation system in the valley until Eaton and Mulholland buried those plans. Almost all the schemes and tricks the mysterious oligarchs commit in Chinatown really happened – the staged dam construction, deliberately misleading the Los Angeles community to vote for the project, destroying farmers’ property, buying their land for a pittance under false names, and even the previously mentioned dam disaster.

In Towne’s script, the characters of Eaton and Mulholland are combined into one – the charming and engaging wealthy Noah Cross, who turns out to be almost the embodiment of evil in the film’s finale. The script is perhaps the best ever written for any film. There is a reason why for almost forty years it has been considered a sacred cow of the industry and an unrivaled classic of screenwriting craftsmanship. Towne wrote a total story – perfect in structure and ruthlessly logical; calm and steady, yet constantly tense; filled with a host of colorful characters with secrets, whose revelations turn the course of the film several times; and finally, with a central role of a cynical, unpleasant antihero whom we root for until the very end. Casablanca has a wonderful structure and complementary characters, Citizen Kane is an insightful study of a great man’s fall, but none of these stories are as subtle and filled with a powerful atmosphere of impending catastrophe as Towne’s text. None of them also abound in as much ambiguity and enigmatic symbolism, with which the American screenwriter adorned his work (the flaw in the iris, “bad for glass”).

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

Towne uses the trappings of black crime fiction, but unlike many of his colleagues, he doesn’t focus on playing with the convention but on getting to its essence and extracting the elements of black cinema that are most important and made it such a fertile genre. So we have above all a pessimistic view of the world and a surrounding atmosphere of moral decay and lurking danger (achieved with Polanski’s wonderfully ascetic direction); an antihero – flawed, not very likable, but ultimately positive, whose active, Nietzschean will to act is directly proportional to the tragic experiences that shaped him; the city as the center not only of events but also of the plot intrigue; and finally, the obligatory femme fatale.

The fact that Towne doesn’t focus on the convention doesn’t mean that manipulation of it in Chinatown is absent. Just as Noah Cross rapes his daughter, so Towne, in a sense, “rapes” the noir convention – Gittes, instead of being a dignified, tragic hero, turns out to be a failure whose overconfidence leads to his downfall; the city, classically depicted as a den of evil and pathology, is photographed in the hot rays of the California sun, and the action takes place in decent, orderly neighborhoods, in single-family homes, on well-manicured lawns, and in the villas of the wealthy; the essential femme fatale, instead of a manipulative black widow, is the most tragic figure in the drama (though Towne does everything and more to mislead us about this until the very end); finally, the crime story itself is full of dark humor (usually thanks to Gittes’ ironic remarks), and halfway through, it suddenly transforms into a poignant family drama.

Chinatown John Huston

Meanwhile, Roman Polanski was also wrestling with demons from his past. Still in depression after the massacre committed by Charles Manson’s family at his home in Beverly Hills, he was in Europe and had no intention of returning to the United States. He learned about the project from his friend Jack Nicholson, with whom he had wanted to make a film for some time. Robert Evans wanted a European to direct Chinatown, hoping the production would gain an unusual, dark atmosphere. Choosing Polanski was a perfect decision. After reading the 180-page screenplay, the Polish director was thrilled but felt the text needed radical shortening and simplification. He had long been a fan of noir crime fiction – both its literary form by Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, and its film form – and in Chinatown, he saw an opportunity to create his tribute to the genre. And although returning to Los Angeles couldn’t have been pleasant for him, the strength of the text convinced him it was worth it.

A Hero with a Bandaged Nose

The production of the film went quickly and smoothly. Years later, Polanski recalled that it was the first film in his career where he felt absolutely free, had no limitations, and got everything he needed. Hiring Jack Nicholson was a formality – Towne had written the main character with him in mind. The sinister Noah Cross was played by John Huston – a legendary director, screenwriter, and actor. The most controversy, however, was associated with Faye Dunaway, who ultimately played the femme fatale of this dark tale, Evelyn Mulwray. The American actress was tense, moody, and had trouble remembering her lines on set. But in the end, it worked out well for the production – after all, that’s exactly how her character is portrayed. When designing her costumes and makeup, Polanski reportedly had in mind his mother, whom he remembered from his wartime childhood.

Chinatown Faye Dunaway

Filming proceeded in a calm, relaxed atmosphere and finished six days ahead of schedule. The production faced only one major crisis – cinematographer Stanley Cortez, whom the Polish director hired for his classic style, was fired. Cortez’s working methods proved very cumbersome for the crew, so he was replaced by John A. Alonzo.

Writing about Chinatown, one naturally cannot overlook the knife scene, in which Roman Polanski himself, playing an intriguingly dressed gangster, cuts J.J. Gittes’ nose. The effect was so authentic that the question of how it was achieved was one of the most frequently asked questions the director heard for many years after the production ended. A knife with a special blade was used, with only one side being sharp – in the film, Polanski uses the other side.

The biggest point of contention during the production of Chinatown turned out to be, of course, the ending. In its original version, Evelyn killed Cross and ended up in prison, thus saving her daughter. This was the resolution Evans and Towne insisted on throughout the production period. However, Polanski believed that the entire meaning of the story rested on a tragic ending. He had already made significant changes to the screenplay earlier – including removing Gittes’ off-screen narration – but this was to be the most radical. You have to leave the audience wanting more, he said years later. With a burning desire to change reality, to change their lives. If you don’t, you let everyone ride off into the sunset comfortably, closing the plot lines neatly, and people will forget your film by dinner.

Chinatown Roman Polanski

The ending turned out to be the bone of contention in the production – Evans and Towne insisted on the original version for so long that practically the entire filming period passed, and the crew still didn’t know what the final scene would be. After long arguments, Robert Evans finally agreed to Polanski’s version, and the director added it to the screenplay just a few days before its actual shooting. Many years later, both men admitted that the director had been right.

As little as possible

Moreover, it is hard to disagree that his direction is one of the film’s greatest assets. Polanski knew that if Chinatown stood out in any field, it would be the screenplay, so he based his direction on two fundamental pillars.

Chinatown John Huston

First, he did what any intelligent creator would do in his place – he didn’t interfere. His handling of the plot is a textbook example of static, restrained narration, whose main goal is to tell the story in the simplest and most elegant way possible. There are no sudden camera movements, abrupt zooms, or non-linear editing in Chinatown – the director most often observes the action from just one place, and his main principle is to let the characters speak and simply film what is happening. It might seem that such an approach is taking the easy way out, but the hallmark of all great things in cinema is that after watching them, one feels that almost anyone could have done it. The narration in Chinatown is one of the most mature in the Polish director’s career, and its genius lies precisely in its austerity. A lesser creator would probably have approached the film entirely differently.

Chinatown Faye Dunaway Jack Nicholson

The second fundamental principle was maximizing tension by entirely subjectivizing the narration to Gittes’ perspective, akin to classic literary crime stories. Polanski was very strict and consistent with this – Gittes appears in every scene of the film, and when, for any reason, his perspective of time is disturbed, the narration adapts to this change – for example, when he is knocked out by farmers in an orange grove in Owens Valley (in the film – San Fernando Valley). The camera often stays behind the protagonist’s back, and the audience sees the action through his eyes. The purpose of this device is simple – Chinatown is a crime story, and by completely subjectivizing it to the detective’s perspective, viewers discover the clues at the same time he does.

Musical Fever

After editing the film, it was time to show it to the audience. After the first test screening in Santa Barbara, more than half the viewers left before the end of the screening. The dissatisfied creators concluded that the reason was the music composed by the inexperienced Philip Lambro. Evans managed to convince the studio to change the release date, and Polanski found a new composer in the meantime.

Chinatown Jack Nicholson John Huston

That composer was Jerry Goldsmith, and the story of the score he wrote for Chinatown is one of the most inspiring tales in modern film music history. The American wrote it in ten days, and his creation became an instant classic and one of the most recognizable elements of the film, permanently etched in the history of the industry. The sophisticated, winding saxophone passages immediately evoke the classic noir genre, simultaneously creating an unsettling, unpleasant atmosphere of lurking danger, finally enchanting with melancholy and the emotional background. Goldsmith’s music does not claim to represent the entire reality – listening to it, we immediately know it is an illustration of only a fragment of these characters’ fates; we immediately sense the burden of their past, the pain of memories from years ago, and the helpless resignation when they are aware of the impossibility – or perhaps even unwillingness – of changing them.

The Flaw in the Iris

After its release in 1974, Chinatown was a box office success, and critics couldn’t praise the film enough. The production became Jack Nicholson’s – then a rising star – ticket to true fame; it catapulted almost the entire crew working on it to the top.

Chinatown Faye Dunaway Jack Nicholson

Polanski’s film received seven Golden Globe nominations and four statuettes – for directing, leading actor, screenplay, and finally the film itself – and eleven Oscar nominations, although unfortunately only one award: also for the screenplay. Much like many years earlier with Knife in the Water’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Polanski once again had bad luck with his competitors. His debut once lost to Fellini’s , and this time it was the year Francis Ford Coppola was sweeping up everything possible for The Godfather Part II.

The situation wasn’t entirely unfair, as both Coppola’s and Polanski’s films have equally etched themselves into the history of cinema. And yet Chinatown seems to be the more influential production – it contributed to increased interest in the history of Los Angeles and the scams related to land and water rights, and its iconography and storytelling style became permanently etched in the history of cinema. Many subsequent films have drawn from this iconography, and one of the most recent was the 2011 comedic and cinema-referencing animation Rango.

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

The creators themselves did not forget about their magnum opus and many years later decided to return to the world they had created. Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown was the first part of a planned trilogy about J.J. Gittes, corruption at the highest levels of Los Angeles power, and the theft of public goods by private individuals. The theme of Chinatown was water, the second part was to be about oil, and the third – about land.

The second part was made in 1990 under the title The Two Jakes, and its action took place in 1948. All the key players from the 1974 production returned to their roles – Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans, and Towne once again wrote the screenplay. Many supporting characters from Chinatown could also be seen on screen again, though more as a nod to the audience than anything else. For obvious reasons, Polański could not participate in the film, so Nicholson himself took on the directing (and it was by no means his debut in that role).

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

Focusing on oil, betrayal, sex, money, and – most importantly – dealing with the past, the sequel did not achieve the success of its predecessor. Its production was constantly disrupted by artistic disputes among the main trio – Evans, Towne, and Nicholson – and the film turned out to be both a financial and artistic failure. Its failure buried plans to make the final part of the trilogy, which was to be set around 1968.

Chinatown has stood the test of time, though it was not easy – the film was forgotten for a long time (and if it was mentioned, it was mostly in the context of the director’s sexual exploits), and it was first released on Blu-ray only last year – with optional director’s commentary by none other than David Fincher.

Chinatown Jack Nicholson

The influence of Polański’s work on contemporary cinema is undeniable. Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the Alien series and its future. I recall a statement by the screenwriter of the first part, Dan O’Bannon: As for me, you can make ten more parts, I don’t care. Alien killed the sci-fi horror genre because nothing better in this regard can simply be made. How can you make a detective film after Chinatown?

Well, you can try.