Created by Robert Towne
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Generally considered one of the greatest movies of the seventies and arguably the greatest private eye flick ever made (the only other real contender is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon) 1974’s Chinatown, which unleashed the character of Los Angeles gumshoe J.J. “JAKE” GITTES upon the world, is a superb private eye mystery and modern-day film noir thriller. It’s not neo-noir–it’s noir to the bone.
Its original screenplay by Robert Towne (which won the film’s only Academy Award, although it garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture)) is a throwback to the best Hollywood film noirs from the pens of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the 30s and 40s. Under Roman Polanski’s direction (and his crucial rewriting of the ending) added an unhealthy dose of nastiness to what might have been a merely handsomely-mounted period piece, and it became a classic film that transcended genres, setting off reverberations that still echo today. The film was inspired by the 1908 Owens River Valley scandal, but moved to 1937, but the gradual unearthing of secrets under many layers and facades of corruption and deception, both political and personal, during a routine PI investigation struck a responsive — and timely — chord during the Watergate era.
The cast is superb, with Jack Nicholson as the slick, slightly sleazy and moderately successful divorce detective, who gave up on doing the right thing a long time ago, back when he was a cop in Chinatown. Faye Dunaway is the woman, Evelyn Mulray, not so much a femme fatale, as the femme blessée, another person walking wounded, a victim of evil, not its proponent — although at first that’s not readily apparent. In a great nod to tradition, John Huston plays Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father, rich and powerful, the true symbol of the heart of darkness in this film. And Polanski himself even shows up, in a memorable cameo, as the knife-wielding thug in a white suit who demonstrates to Jake just what happens to people who stick their noses where they don’t belong.
Yet, as great as the acting is, as haunting as the score is, as rich as the period detail is, it’s Towne’s dark, brooding plot, and the masterful skill with which Polanski brings it all home that is the true triumph. In 1937, Los Angeles is in dire need of water. Meanwhile, Jake is hired to follow the LA water commissioner, whose wife claims he’s cheating on her.
The lies and betrayals quickly pile up, as Jake pursues his investigation into what he thinks is just another wandering husband job. For Chinatown is more than just a locale, or a bad memory of Jake’s; it serves as metaphor for “the great wrong place”, in much the same way Hammett used Poisonville in Red Harvest or Raymond Chandler used Bay City. Chinatown is where evil reigns, and the law does “as little as possible.” As several characters say, you may think you know what’s going on, but you don’t.
Towne’s plot veers from blinding sunshine to the darkest of shadows, and it all ends in what is perhaps one of the most downbeat and powerful conclusions in film. The amount of wickedness finally revealed is staggering, as we’re subjected to the corruption of politics, money, sex, innocence and even the land itself. Jake is finally back in the oft-alluded to Chinatown, unable to do much but bear witness to the carnage, while the police mop up the mess, and the bad guy rides off into the sunset.
The Maltese Falcon ended with Spade mournfully musing about “the stuff that dreams are made of,” but at least Spade could find consolation in having done the right thing. For Jake, and the other survivors of Chinatown, there are no more dreams, just nightmares and a sense of futility and powerlessness, in the face of such absolute corruption and unassailable power.
His partner tries to lead him away, saying the only thing left to be said. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
It’s a great noir line, summing up not just an entire era’s despair and disillusionment, as the wide-eyed idealism of the sixties was finally nailed shut in the wake of assassinations, pointless wars and Watergate, but also perhaps an entire film genre’s. For isn’t noir, in the end, about the fact that evil is always there, and although a good man may go down those mean streets, there’s no guarantee he’ll win, or even survive?
It is to cry.
Towne’s original ending had Evelyn getting off for her father’s murder–he’s just winged in the final movie version–and then a rain was to have fallen on the city, metaphorically relieving it of its drought. Supposedly, Towne referred to Polanski’s darkening of his script as “the tunnel at the end of the light.” In the end, the survivor’s can only rage against it all, and go on living.
THE TWO JAKES
Chinatown ends with the memorable line “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
But people couldn’t forget Chinatown. Towne and Nicholson’s alleged original plan was to trace the history of California through three films, all featuring Jake, but it was only in 1990 that The Two Jakes, the second film, finally surfaced.
The long-delayed sequel builds on the first film, resulting in one of the most powerful and effective follow-ups to ever come out of Hollywood; a true sequel in every sense of the word; picking up on and expanding upon the narrative and thematic concerns of the first film.
How do you deal with the past when, as Jake points out, ”You can’t forget the past any more than you can change it.”
Unfortunately, Chinatown‘s success, both artistically and commercially, almost ensured the negative reception of the much-maligned sequel. It was almost universally panned when it first appeared, although as the years went by, people who loved the film began to stick their necks out.
It was a troubled production almost from the start, with producer Robert Evans, writer/director Robert Towne and star Nicholson all falling out while Polanski himself was in exile in Europe. It was left to Nicholson to pick up the pieces, and take over the director’s chores. That it turned out to be such a focussed and concentrated film, with every scene falling into place like dominoes, seems to have escaped the notice of most critics. Evidently, its biggest fault was that it wasn’t Chinatown. But then, few films are.
It certainly wasn’t your standard private eye flick, either. As Roger Ebert put it, “It’s an exquisite short story about a mood, and a time, and a couple of guys who are blind-sided by love,” as Jake finds himself at the top of the heap, professionally speaking, the “leper with the most fingers.”
It’s postwar Los Angeles – the 1940s of the baby boom and housing subdivisions – and Jake has moved up the social ladder. He’s still digging up the dirt in divorce cases, as jaded and cynical as ever. “I suppose it’s fair to say infidelity made me what I am today,” he jokes as the film begins, but he’s not laughing. Sure, he has his own building now, and he even belongs to a country club. He has a fiancee and a gut. But the past haunts him. And then, in a barely decipherable aside in a conversation between two adulterous lovers, caught forever on a piece of recording tape, the past comes calling.
With a vengeance.
- “A film that had a profound effect on my life… the truth is that Chinatown is my favorite movie of all time. June 20, 1974, opening day for Chinatown and I was there in San Francisco at the Coronet Theater, and I will tell you, when that movie ended, I was a different person.”
— Eddie Muller, in conversation with Ben Mankiewicz (July 9, 2021, TCM Friday Night Neo-Noir)
- “Not pleasant. This vision, as scripted by Robert Towne and interpreted by Roman Polanski, of Los Angeles in 1937, is as hellish as Phenix City, Alabama in 1955 or Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville. It’s a terrifying film, full of corrupr behaviour, including greed of every type… Polanski twisted the ending out of Townes’ hands and made the movie even darker than intended, and he inserted a scen in which he slices up Jack Nicholson’s nose with a large knife.”
— Barry Gifford on Chinatown in Out of the Past
- “… a 1940s private-eye movie that doesn’t depend on nostalgia or camp for its effect, but works because of the enduring strength of the genre itself. In some respects, this movie actually could have been made in the 1940s… a tour de force; it’s a period movie, with all the right cars and clothes and props, but we forget that after the first ten minutes. We’ve become involved in the movie’s web of mystery, as we always were with the best private-eye stories, whether written or filmed. We care about these people and want to see what happens to them… Chinatown was seen as a neo-noir when it was released — an update on an old genre. Now years have passed and film history blurs a little, and it seems to settle easily beside the original noirs. That is a compliment.”
— Roger Ebert on Chinatown
- “A cinema structuralist par excellence, a self-proclaimed disciple of Orson Welles, Polanski understands America’s invisible class warfare as only a foreigner can. He determinedly depressive aesthetic provided the completely downbeat ending. Towne preferred a different close, one that offered a glimmer of hope and a more literal sense of history. Polanski knew better.”
— Film Noir of the Week on Chinatown
- “…what we have here is the kind of plot that any private eye movie might have been proud of. But The Two Jakes uses the plot only as an occasion for the deeper and more brooding things it has to say. Everyone connected with this movie seems to have gone through the private eye genre and come out on the other side. The screenplay is by Robert Towne, who at one stage in the project’s troubled history was going to direct it. He has not simply assembled some characters from his “Chinatown,” added some new ones, and thrown them into a plot. This movie is written with meticulous care, to show how good and evil are never as simple as they seem, and to demonstrate that even the motives of a villain may emerge from a goodness of heart… The movie really is about the values that people have, and about the things that mean more to them than life and freedom. It’s a deep movie, and a thoughtful one, and when it’s over you can’t easily put it out of your mind.”
— Roger Ebert on The Two Jakes
- “The Two Jakes is a good period detective film, a wonderful second chance to spend time with Jake Gittes, and a loving, bittersweet coda to a masterpiece. Having read the screenplay, I only wish Nicholson had cut the film differently — he omitted some of the more overt detective elements, particularly in the courtroom scene conclusion, which would have helped the picture connect with a wider audience. It’s a lovely sad story on its own terms and Harvey Keitel is incredible, getting every nuance out of a well-written role, courtesy of Robert Towne…People are really idiots when it comes to sequels. They almost never give them a fair shake. And yet they go. If the idea of a sequel offends you, shut up and stay home.”
— Max Allan Collins on The Two Jakes (The January Magazine Interview)
- “All this talk of The Two Jakes gave me an excuse to pull out my copy and watch it again. While I will agree that it’s no Chinatown (and please tell me what is) I will also agree that it is VERY underrated… I loved (the film’s) sense of post-war L.A. Great atmosphere. The wardrobe, production design, and photography are not only top rate, but qualify as American Art. I’m surprised it didn’t pick up award nominations in those categories….But the biggest blame for whatever shortcomings of the film rests with Jack. As a director, not an actor. Nicholson’s direction is overly cautious and this leads to a general feeling that there is a lack of focus…I’m watching the film for the second time in two days and I think I know where Jack went wrong. He assumed that the audience would be paying VERY close attention. It’s all there. You just have to magnify certain parts of the film to pull the deeper meanings from them. His faith in us was ballsy…and misguided….He takes his sweet time laying it all out, dropping pieces of the puzzle in sometimes miniscule increments, but the final moments of the film play as a fantastic coda to all that has come before and the entire movie displays a Ross Macdonald-like obsession with the past that is quite satisfying. The last thirty seconds of the film remind me of a great book that reveals its true nature in the last paragraph, altering and enhancing your feelings of all you have witnessed up to that point.
It’s too bad that the bitterness between Towne, Evans, and Nicholson and the lackluster box office performance of The Two Jakes will probably keep us from ever seeing the third installment of this proposed trilogy. I’d love to see what Jake gets up to in the fifties… I thought it was a noble if somewhat confused effort…Certainly a fine entry in the very limited P.I. genre of the last twenty years. Not much has given Chinatown a run for its money since 1975. The Two Jakes gives it a shot. It falls short, but at least they tried.”
— Terrill Lankford on The Two Jakes
- “This morning I had two hours and twenty minutes that I didn’t need an alibi for, so I watched the movie again. It’s more than fair to try to explain what I see in it and why I think it’s better (in some ways) than its classic parent… Like all good pee eye stories, it’s about truth: its facades; how malleable it is. It’s a continuation of a thought, more than a sequel. I like the idea of a wife to protect and divorce. I like the earthquakes, the atmospheres, the very specific references to Los Angeles, even the crack about Patton coming from Pasadena.
.I like the casual sex (as casual as the racism.) Poor Jake gets his head thumped getting laid. ‘I’m trying to be a gentleman. Get down on your knees. Put your ass in the air.’ He needs a drink of water and a chance to catch his breath.
I like that there’s a rainbow of motives and agendas, and nobody knows what the next one’s up to. Even if Gittes says, it’s “as plain as the shoes on his feet.” Those shoes, BTW, I remember the propmaster saying when the movie came out that he had been holding onto those two-toned shoes for a dozen years — waiting for Jack to make the movie. I like the second last scene with the American flag. It reminds me of Errol Flynn and Custer’s Last Stand. I like the Ross Macdonald last scene.
I like the movie because it isn’t as technically pure as Chinatown. I’ve seen (and read) too many technically pure stories lately. Sometimes they feel soulless, no matter what their message. The Two Jakes has a soul that’s more baroque, more of a ‘twisted pearl.’
Chinatown is young genius. The Two Jakes is about the ponderance that years (and mileage) give people. It’s a middle-age movie. Yeah, we gain memories along with the weight. (Listen to the voiceover about Lou Escobar losing a leg.) Gittes is no longer sleek with youth, and Nicholson huffs and puffs like he’s climbing up three flights of stairs. He looks like something the cat’s been dragging through the house. Gittes has been smacked with entropy (but doesn’t see it,) and only the mention of Katherine Mulwray can quicken his pulse. Nicholson is more than willing not to be movie-star pretty, which cost him & his cohorts many tickets at the box office….Gittes is less clean, and he knows it; he calls himself “the leper with the most fingers.”
— Frederick Zackel (Cocaine and Blue Eyes) on The Two Jakes
- “Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”
— Jake offers some advice (Chinatown)
- “You may think you know what you’re dealing with but believe me, you don’t.”
— Jake receives a warning (Chinatown)
- Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing (in Chinatown)?
Jake: Working for the district attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Jake: As little as possible.
Evelyn: The district attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake: They do in Chinatown.
- “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.”
— director Polanski makes a rather memorable cameo as the “Man with Knife” (Chinatown)
- “Do you know the expression, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?'”
— Jake tries to dissuade a client, advice he pointedly ignores later on (Chinatown)
- “Do you understand or is it too tough for you?”
— Evelyn lays it all out for Jake, and he doesn’t get it (Chinatown)
- “OK, go home, but in case you’re interested, your husband was murdered. Somebody’s been dumping thousands of tons of water from the city’s reservoirs and we’re supposed to be in the middle of a drought. He found out about it and he was killed. There’s a waterlogged drunk in the morgue, involuntary manslaughter if anybody wants to take the trouble—which they don’t. It seems like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine by me. But Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think that you’re hiding something.”
— Jake confronts Evelyn
- “I suppose it’s fair to say that infidelity made me what I am today.”
— Jake muses on his success (The Two Jakes)
- “I’m trying to be a gentleman. Get down on your knees. Put your ass in the air.”
— Jake consoles a widow (The Two Jakes)
- “What I do for a living may not be very reputable. But I am. In this town I’m the leper with the most fingers.”
— Jake (The Two Jakes)
- In The Two Jakes, set in 1948, Jake strolls past an automatic teller machine.
- CHINATOWN | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray
(1974, Paramount Pictures)
Screenplay by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Produced by C.O. Erickson
Associate producer Robert Evans
Starring Jack Nicholson as J. J. (JAKE) GITTES
with Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray
John Huston as Noah Cross
Perry Lopez as Escobar
Dick Bakalyan as Loach
Also starring John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, Nandu Hinds, James O’Rear, James Hong, Beulah Quo, Jerry Fujikawa, Belinda Palmer, Roy Roberts, George Justin, Noble Willingham, Elliott Montgomery, Rance Howard, Doc Erickson, Fritzie Burr, Charles Knapp, Claudio Martinez, Federico Roberto, Allan Warnic, John Holland, Jesse Vint, Jim Burke, Denny Arnold, Burt Young, Elizabeth Harding, John Rogers, Cecil Elliott, Bob Golden, Paul Jenkins, Lee de Broux
- THE TWO JAKES | Buy the DVD | Watch it now!
Written by Robert Towne
Director: Jack Nicholson
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: Van Dyke Parks
Produced by Robert Evans and Harold Schneider
Starring Jack Nicholson as JAKE GITTES
Harvey Keitel as Jake Berman
Meg Tilly as Kitty Berman
With David Keith as Loach Jr.
James Hong as Kahn
Perry Lopez as Captain Lou Escobar
and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray (voice)
Also starring Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, Frederic Forrest, Richard Farnsworth, Tracey Walter, Joe Mantell, Jeff Morris, Rebecca Broussard, Paul A. DiCocco Jr., John Hackett, Rosie Vela, Van Dyke Parks, Tom Waits
ALSO OF INTEREST
- Chinatown and the Last Detail: Two Screenplays (1997; by Robert Towne) | Buy this book
- BFI Film Classics: Chinatown (1997; by Michael Eaton) | Buy this book
- The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and The Last Years of Hollywood (2020; by Sam Wasson) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
Everything you ever wanted to know, full of mini-bios, gossip and wacko conspiracy theories, about the making of arguably the greatest P.I. movie ever.
- “I Was Filled With a Sense of Loss and Longing”
Chinatown remembered by Fred Zackel
- Roger Ebert’s Review of The Two Jakes
The full review.
- Counting Down The Greatest Crime Films Of All-Time: Chinatown (#3)
Otto Penzler does a bang-up job on the 1974 classic (July 2020, CrimeReads)