Chinatown (1974)


Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. The film features many elements of the film noir genre, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama. It was released by Paramount Pictures. The story, set in Los Angeles in 1937, was inspired by the historical disputes over land and water rights that had raged in southern California during the 1910s and 20s, in which William Mulholland acted on behalf of Los Angeles interests to secure water rights in the Owens Valley. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning in the category of Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne. In 1991, Chinatown was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." A sequel, called The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, starring Jack Nicholson, who also directed it, with a screenplay by Robert Towne.


A woman hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to perform surveillance on Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The woman (Diane Ladd) claims to be Mulwray's wife Evelyn, who suspects him of adultery. Gittes tails Mulwray. In a public meeting about a proposed bond issue for new dam construction, Mr. Mulwray argues that the proposed dam will be physically unsound and opposes the bond issue, which eventually passes. Following Mulwray to several Water and Power-related sites, they discover the dumping of fresh water into the ocean in spite of the late summer drought. Gittes's associate photographs Mulwray arguing with an elderly man outside the Pig 'n Whistle eatery in Hollywood, and only overhears the words "apple core" over traffic noise (a corruption of the word "albacore"). Gittes's tail finally hits paydirt when he photographs Mulwray with his young mistress. When the photos hit the front page of the paper the next day, Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who serves him with a lawsuit. Gittes realizes he had been duped by a phony Mrs. Mulwray, and to repair his reputation, he must figure out who was behind the hiring, and why. Gittes convinces Evelyn Mulwray that he was only unwittingly involved in her personal business and she agrees to dismiss her lawsuit. She nervously reveals that her maiden name was "Cross" and that Mulwray used to be her father's business partner. Visiting the Department of Water and Power, Gittes recognizes photographs of the same elderly man Mulwray was photographed quarreling with, and learns his name: Noah Cross (John Huston). Mulwray and Cross once privately owned the water department. Gittes looks for Mulwray at the Oak Pass reservoir but finds police detectives there instead, including Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), with whom Gittes used to work as an officer in Chinatown. Escobar and his men are investigating Mulwray's death by drowning and are recovering the body. At headquarters, Evelyn falsely tells Escobar that she did hire Gittes at the outset to put an end to rumors about Mulwray's adultery, expecting nothing to come of it. Gittes tells Evelyn that he suspects that Mulwray was murdered. Evelyn hires Gittes to investigate Mulwray's death. Breaking into the reservoir's secured area that night, Gittes nearly drowns in water suddenly being dumped. Soaking wet, he is confronted by water department security chief Claude Mulvihill (a corrupt former county sheriff) with a short henchman (a cameo by director Roman Polanski) who sticks a knife blade up Gittes's nose and slashes through his nostril for being a "very nosy kitty cat." Back at his office, sporting a bandage, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, identifying herself as the "working girl" who pretended to "hire" him as Mrs. Mulwray. She did not realize the seriousness of what she was involved in, she explains, but she is too afraid to identify her employer. Miss Sessions does provide a clue, though: that Gittes can find the name of one of "those people" in that day's obituary column. Gittes joins Noah Cross, a member of the Albacore Club, at his estate for lunch. Cross also offers to hire Gittes to find Katherine, Mulwray's young mistress, who has been missing since Mulwray died. Cross refuses to discuss his argument with Mulwray outside the Pig 'n Whistle in any detail, and deflects Gittes's questions by explaining that the mistress might know how Mulwray was killed. "Just find the girl," he admonishes. Gittes visits the hall of records, comparing recent land grantees with names of deceased persons in the obituary column. Then he drives to an orange grove in the northwest San Fernando Valley, and is shot at, caught, and beaten by the angry landowners. They explain that the water department has been demolishing their water tanks and poisoning wells, before they knock him out. When Gittes wakes up, Evelyn is there to pick him up. They leave and Gittes reviews the obituary column, noticing that a resident of the Mar Vista Inn, a retirement home, died two weeks ago, but "bought" acreage in the Valley only one week ago. "That's unusual," Gittes quips. Growers have been forced off their acreage by drought conditions and harassment by the water department, Gittes explains, depressing value. Unidentified persons are buying tens of thousands of acres "for peanuts" using the names of straw buyers. The public dam bond issue that Mulwray unsuccessfully opposed, Gittes explains, is a "con job" designed to irrigate the rural valley, not to conserve water for city taxpayers. Because he knew about this and other things, Gittes theorizes, Hollis Mulwray was murdered. Evelyn and Jake arrive at the Mar Vista Inn and confirm that its residents have no clue of their wealth; further, the Mar Vista Inn is affiliated with the Albacore Club as "sort of an unofficial charity." Mulvihill soon arrives to "escort" Jake out and they scuffle. With Mulvihill's henchman firing at them, Gittes and Evelyn escape the Mar Vista in her car. Returning to her house, they passionately kiss and wind up in her bed. In intimate conversation, Jake tells Evelyn about his time as a beat cop in L.A.'s Chinatown, where he was instructed to do "as little as possible." Nothing was ever as it seemed, he explains. Gittes's attempt to protect a woman only ensured that she was hurt. Evelyn's phone rings and she quickly hangs up and says that she has to leave. Evelyn asks Jake to wait for her there and to trust her. She adds that Noah Cross owns the Albacore Club. Gittes tails Evelyn to her butler's house; peering through a bedroom window he sees Evelyn comforting Katherine, Mulwray's distraught mistress. Evelyn, when Gittes presses, admits that Mulwray's mistress is her sister. Then Ida Sessions is found murdered in her house. Gittes receives a mysterious call from a homicide detective using Ms. Sessions's phone and arrives there. Escobar explains that the coroner found salt water in Mulwray's lungs, indicating that the body was moved, as it was recovered from a freshwater reservoir. Gittes returns to Evelyn's mansion, where he discovers a pair of men's eyeglasses in her salt water garden pond. Presuming that Evelyn killed Mulwray and that the glasses had been his, Gittes confronts Evelyn. She denies guilt and, under questioning, wavers about whether Katherine is her sister, or her daughter. In a climactic scene, Gittes repeatedly slaps Evelyn on one side of the face, and then the other, until Evelyn cries out "She's my sister and my daughter!" whom she bore to Noah Cross when she was 15. Evelyn says that the found eyeglasses could not have been Mulwray's because they are bifocals. Gittes decides to help Evelyn and Katherine escape from Cross and Escobar, who now suspects Evelyn of Mulwray's murder, and accuses Gittes of extortion and of acting as an accessory. Gittes arranges for the two women to flee to Mexico, through a fisherman client of his, and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown. Evelyn leaves, and Lt. Escobar arrives. Escobar brings Jake along for his arrest of Evelyn. Jake gives the San Pedro address of the fisherman, which Jake pretends belongs to Evelyn's maid. Jake enters the house alone, slips out the back door, and asks his client to take Evelyn and Katherine to Mexico by boat. At Mulwray's home, Gittes arranges for Mr. Cross to meet him, claiming that he's found Mulwray's mistress. After Gittes confronts him, Cross admits he intends to incorporate the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, which will be irrigated and developed. Gittes then broaches the topic of Cross's incest with Evelyn, and accuses him of Mulwray's drowning. Cross says most people never have to acknowledge that, given the right circumstances, they are "capable of anything." Gittes produces Cross's bifocals, the only physical evidence linking him to Mulwray's murder. Mulvihill appears, holding a gun on Gittes, forcing him to surrender Cross's glasses and to take them to Katherine. When Gittes reaches the hiding place in Chinatown, the police are already there and arrest Gittes for withholding evidence and extortion. Gittes protests that Cross murdered Mulwray, but Escobar orders one of his men to handcuff Gittes to a car. Noah Cross approaches Katherine, explaining that he is her "grandfather." Evelyn backs him off with a small pistol, vowing to protect her daughter. Gittes scolds Evelyn to "Let the police handle this!" Evelyn fires back: "He owns the police!" Cross approaches Katherine again and Evelyn shoots him in the arm. As Evelyn speeds away with Katherine, the police open fire, killing Evelyn; her body falls onto the car horn, followed by Katherine's blood-curdling scream. Cross clutches Katherine and takes her away. After being uncuffed, Gittes mutters to Escobar, " little as possible," reminding Escobar of their frustrating years policing corrupt Chinatown. Escobar angrily releases Gittes, confiding that he is doing Gittes "a favor," and ordering Gittes's associates to "Get him out of here!" Gittes is urged, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."