“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
This quote from the celebrated 1974 neo-noir movie, “Chinatown” will forever be associated with actor Jack Nicholson, though it was supporting player Joe Mantell who had the honor of delivering the film’s nihilistic sign-off. Mantell played private detective Lawrence Walsh, partner to Jake Gittes as played by Nicholson — a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination. The film received a total of 11 Academy Award nominations, but took home just one statue for “Best Original Screenplay” for writer Robert Towne. Towne’s script is considered by critics and writers alike to be among the best screenplays ever written, artfully weaving the history of 1930s Los Angeles’ water wars with a taut psychological drama of incest and murder.
As brilliant as Towne’s script is, director Roman Polanski actually rewrote the final scene himself, doing away with Towne’s original happy ending in favor of the bleak conclusion wherein Evelyn Mulwray, daughter of oligarch sociopath Noah Cross, is shot through the head while trying to escape her father’s clutches. Polanski, who had no shortage of tragedy in his life — first as a survivor of the Krakow ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and later losing his young wife Sharon Tate in the infamous Manson Family murders in 1969 — wanted the film’s ending to capture his belief that power always got its way, no matter the human cost.In spite of the two men’s clashes over the film’s ending, Towne’s vision for the film was not far from Polanski’s. The writer claimed his source for another signature bit of dialog came directly from the mouth of a real L.A. vice cop. When Evelyn Mulwray asks Jake Gittes, “What did you do in Chinatown?” Gittes replies: “As little as possible.” As the vice cop had explained it to Towne, the myriad gangs and dialects in L.A.’s Chinatown district made it nearly impossible to tell if the police were helping or hurting the citizens they were sworn to protect. This left the only safe route to be one of cautious indifference. However, Gittes’ noble intentions caused him to try to help anyway, thus causing the death of an innocent woman and ending his career with the LAPD.
It is because Gittes again refuses to stand idly by while evil, this time embodied by Noah Cross, runs rampant in his city, that he becomes personally invested in helping Evelyn Mulwray; thus propelling the story toward its tragic conclusion. The story deals with archetypal film noir characters such as the femme fatale, corrupt businessman/politician, and crooked cops — all of whom are being eaten away by secrets and lies just as surely as the Owens Valley is quietly being drained of its life-giving water to feed Los Angeles’ expansion.
In a life-imitates-art twist, director Roman Polanski found himself at the center of a modern Los Angeles scandal involving illicit sex and power broking when he was arrested in 1977 for sexual assault against a 13-year old girl. The assault allegedly took place at the home of Jack Nicholson, and the ensuing legal battle saw Polanski doing 90 days at Chino State Prison, only to have the judge renege on his earlier promise of probation, thus prompting Polanski to flee the United States for a European exile, which continues to this day.