Theaters: June 1974
Streaming: November 1999
Runtime: 130 minutes
Genre: Crime – Drama – Film Noir – Mystery – Suspense – Thriller
Amazon: 4.6/5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 9.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Audience: 4.2/5
Metacritic Metascore: 86/100
Metacritic User Score: 8.9/10
Awards: 1 Academy Award and 4 Golden Globes
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Film Locations: California, US
Worldwide Box Office: $29,200,000
J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson), a former L.A. cop, spends his days and occasional nights as a private investigator, hired mainly to catch cheating spouses in the act of, well, cheating. An elderly woman hires Jake to find the women her adulterous husband, Hollis Mulwray the chief engineer for L.A. Water and Power, is fooling around with. Jake photographs Mulwray in the embrace of a young woman and the next day the pictures are on the front page of the newspaper. Mulwray is found dead by drowning in a city reservoir the same day. The wife of Mulwray (Dunaway), who it turns out, is not the women who hired Jake the day before, sues him for publishing the pictures. Jake realizes soon enough that he was set up and Mulwray was murdered. He is determined to find out why.
The movie’s story, set in 1937, is a mixed-up, mashed-up telling of the L.A. water wars in the early 1900s. By the end of the 19th century L.A.’s growth was outstripping its water supply and the city fathers, politicians, started looking for alternate sources that would quench the city’s ever-growing thirst. They found it 250 miles northeast of L.A. in Owens Valley, a high valley nestled between the Sierras to the west and the beginnings of the Basin and Range region to the east, containing a very nice, thirst quenching river. The voters in L.A. approved 2 bond measures in 1905 and 1907, totaling $26 million dollars, to build a 233 mile long aqueduct from the Owen River to the L.A.’s Lower San Fernando Reservoir, which was later renamed the Lower Van Normans Reservoir. The city along with numerous investors negotiated the water rights from the farmers in the valley, some say swindled, and the aqueduct was built by L.A. Power and Water between 1908 and 1913. The project was supervised by William Mulholland (Hollis Mulwray in the movie), who along with the mayor, Fred Eaton, acquired the water rights to the valley by purchasing the land for a fraction they paid to other land owners outside of Owens Valley. They told the owners that they only wanted a small part of the rights but by 1928 the city owed 90% of the water. The water diversion to L.A. effectively destroyed farming in Owens Valley and by 1924 Owens Lake, which was fed by the river, dried up to a throat-choking plain of dust. That same year farmers in the valley dynamited some of the diversion gates, allowing the water to return to its natural course, at least for a short while. It was an ineffective revolt and by 1927 the farmers were mostly bankrupt and defeated.
Robert Towne wrote the script for Chinatown, winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, using the L.A. water wars and Raymond Chandler as inspiration. He originally envisioned the story to be a trilogy, all starring Jack Nicholson. The second part, The Two Jakes, involving shady oil deals within the city, was directed by and starred Nicholson. The movie did poorly causing everyone to lose interest in the third movie. Roman Polanski had an uncredited part in the Chinatown screenplay, shortening it and changing the ending.
Roman Polanski, celebrated director and rapist, directed Chinatown, winning a Golden Globe for Best Director by creating a beautiful film noir that elevates the genre to heights not seen since the 1941 The Maltese Falcon or the 1958 Touch of Evil. His homage to the genre even includes 1940 style rolling credits; a charming touch. While his Rosemary’s Baby was horror within your mind, Chinatown was in your face with political cynicism and sexual debauchery.
Jack Nicholson, winner of two Academy awards for Best Actor and nominated for 10 others including Chinatown, provides the glue that takes this picture from good to great. His role of an aggressively suave, former gum-shoe, propelled him to the heights of a true legend in Hollywood. A couple of pointless points: Nicholson was in a serious, sometimes, relationship with John Huston’s daughter, Angelica, during the filming of this movie and he also lived on Mulholland Drive, see above, in Beverly Hills.
This is another movie that should be on your “Must See in My Lifetime” list. A true masterpiece of writing, directing, music, and acting.