7 p.m. Friday, April 12, 2024
Humanities Quadrangle, Room L02 (320 York)
Introduction by Rayer Ma
Film Notes by Michael Kerbel

Directed by Roman Polanski (1974) 130 mins
Screenplay by Robert Towne
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Produced by Paramount Pictures
Starring jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Bruce Glover, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd, and Roman Polanski

In 1971, Robert Towne, a “script doctor” on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, was running into difficulties with the first screenplay on his own, an adaptation of the novel The Last Detail, which was to star his friend Jack Nicholson: Columbia Pictures objected to the almost non-stop profanity. While negotiating with Columbia (which would release the film, with the profanity, in 1973), Towne set out to write an original script. He happened upon a 1969 Los Angeles Times article, “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.,” in which contemporary photos recreated the city in the 1930s, and he conceived of a period drama with Nicholson as a Philip Marlowe-style detective. Towne, born and raised in Los Angeles, was also fascinated by Carey McWilliams’s 1946 book Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, which detailed L.A.’s development during the 20th century’s first decade via a controversial scheme. Transplanting that origin story to 1937 would give the private eye drama substantial dimensions, and Towne pitched it to Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production. Evans had just offered Towne $175,000 to write the script for The Great Gatsby, but Towne, not wanting to be known for tampering with Fitzgerald, said that instead he would take $25,000 to write Chinatown. Evans, astutely envisioning it as a film noir in color and widescreen, embraced the project as his first personal production, provided that Roman Polanski (who had made Paramount’s immensely successful Rosemary’s Baby in 1968) direct. Polanski and Towne then collaborated on extensive rewrites, which often involved disputes, especially about the film’s ending (on which Polanski prevailed).

Chinatown was filmed over three months (October, 1973 to January, 1974), and it opened on June 20, 1974. Vincent Canby (New York Times) gave it a mixed review, and Pauline Kael (The New Yorker) called it “over-deliberate,” but the vast majority of critics were enthusiastic. Charles Champlin (Los Angeles Times): “In its total recapturing of a past, in its plot, its vivid characterizations, its carefully calculated and accelerating pace, its whole demonstration of a medium mastered, Chinatown reminds you again that motion pictures are larger, not smaller than life.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times): “not only a great entertainment, but also a 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.” Rex Reed (New York Daily News) was remarkably prescient: “Years from now, when we look back on the really important films of the 1970s, Chinatown is likely to be one of the most fondly remembered.”

The film’s critical and commercial success was due largely to its having tapped into the spirit of the times. Chinatown appeared after a decade of disillusionment, caused by, among other events, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s presidency, culminating in Watergate. The film’s gestation and production coincided with the investigations by the U.S. Senate Watergate Commission, which issued its report one week after the film’s premiere. Chinatown was one of many early 1970s films featuring conspiracies, coverups, and institutional corruption, e.g. Executive Action (1973), Serpico (1973), The Conversation and The Parallax View (both in release at the same time as Chinatown), and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Even two films that helped to end “The New Hollywood” and to usher in the blockbuster era—The Towering Inferno (1974) and Jaws (1975)—were about coverups.

Chinatown received 11 Oscar nominations (winning one, for Towne’s exemplary script), and it cemented Nicholson’s growing stardom. He appears in every scene, thanks to Towne’s insistence that the various layers of the plot unfold to us exactly as they do to Gittes. Chinatown confounds our expectations, even for the usually convoluted film noir genre: as soon as we think we know where the story is going, it makes a surprising turn. What Noah Cross tells Gittes applies to us: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”

DID YOU KNOW: One of Towne’s influences, The Maltese Falcon (1941), was the first film directed by John Huston, who plays Noah Cross in Chinatown.

Presented in Treasures from the Yale Film Archive, with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

Last modified: 
Friday, April 19, 2024 - 10:50am