A sequel, The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, again starring Nicholson, who also directed, with Robert Towne returning to write the screenplay. The film, however, failed to generate the acclaim of its predecessor.
Evelyn Mulwray (Ladd) hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson) to perform matrimonial surveillance on her husband Hollis I. Mulwray (Zwerling), the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes tails him, hears him publicly oppose the creation of a new reservoir, and shoots photographs of him with a young woman (Palmer) that hit the front page of the following day's paper. However, upon his return to his office he is confronted by a beautiful woman who, after establishing that the two of them have never met, irately informs him that she is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) and he can expect a lawsuit.
Realizing he was set up, Gittes figures whoever did it wants to get Mulwray, but, before he can question the husband, Lt. Lou Escobar (Lopez) fishes his drowned body from a fresh water reservoir. Suspicious of murder, Gittes investigates, and notices that, although huge quantities of water are released from the reservoir every night, the land is almost completely dry. He is confronted by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill (Jenson) with a henchman (Polanski) who slashes Gittes's nose. Back at his office, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, an actress whom he recognizes as the bogus Mrs. Mulwray. She is afraid to identify her employer, but provides a clue: the name of one of "those people" is in that day's obituaries.
Gittes learns that Mrs. Mulwray's husband was once the business partner of her father, Noah Cross (Huston), so he meets him for lunch at his palatial estate. Cross offers to double Gittes's fee to search for Mulwray's missing girlfriend, plus a bonus if he succeeds. Gittes visits the hall of records, where he discovers that many large orange groves have recently changed ownership in the northwest San Fernando Valley. He goes there but is caught and beaten by angry landowners; they think he's one of the water department agents who have been demolishing their water tanks and poisoning their wells to force them out.
Gittes's review of the obituaries uncovers a former resident of the Mar Vista Inn, a retirement home, who is one of the new landowners in the Valley. He infers that Mulwray was murdered when he learned that the new reservoir would be used to irrigate the newly-purchased properties. Evelyn and Gittes bluff their way into Mar Vista and confirm that the real estate deals are done in the name of its residents without their knowledge. After fleeing from Mulvihill and his thugs, they hide at Evelyn's house, where they nurse each other's wounds and make love.
In the morning, Evelyn has to leave suddenly, but she warns him that her father is dangerous and crazy. Gittes manages to follow her car to a house where he observes her with Mulwray's girlfriend. He confronts Evelyn, who finally confesses that the woman is her sister.
An anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions's apartment where he finds her murdered, with Escobar waiting for his arrival. Escobar pressures him because the coroner's report found salt water in Mulwray's lungs: the body was moved after death. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder, and he insists Gittes produce her quickly or he'll face charges of his own.
Gittes returns to Evelyn's mansion, where he discovers a pair of men's eyeglasses in her salt water garden pond and her servants packing her bags. He summons Cross to the Mulwray home to collect his bonus. Convinced that she killed her husband, Gittes confronts Evelyn about the woman she said was her sister; Evelyn claims it is her daughter Katherine. Gittes slaps her repeatedly until she cries out "She's my sister and my daughter!" and haltingly admits to a sexual relationship with her father that began after her mother died. He won't face up to it and for that she hates him. Also, the eyeglasses are not her husband's, she says, since he did not wear bifocals.
Gittes makes plans for the two women to flee to Mexico. He instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown, but Cross intercepts him at Mulwray's. Cross admits he intends to incorporate the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes produces the bifocals -- they belong to Cross and link him to Mulwray's murder; Mulvihill appears to confiscate the glasses and force Jake to take them to the women.
When the three reach the hiding place in Chinatown, the police are already there and arrest Gittes. Evelyn will not allow Cross to approach Katherine, and when he is undeterred she shoots him in the arm and drives away with Katherine. As the car speeds off, the police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released, along with his associates. One of them urges, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown!"
Chinatown is set in 1937 and portrays the manipulation of a critical municipal resource — water — by a cadre of shadowy oligarchs. It was the first part of Towne's planned trilogy about the character J.J. Gittes, the foibles of the Los Angeles power structure, and the subjugation of public good by private greed. The second part, The Two Jakes, was about another grab for a natural resource — oil — with a thicker-torsoed Gittes in the 1940s. It was directed by Jack Nicholson and released in 1990, but the second film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make Gittes vs. Gittes, about the third finite resource — land — in Los Angeles, circa 1968.
The characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross are both references to the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855–1935)—the name Hollis Mulwray is partially an anagram for Mulholland. The name Noah is a reference to a flood—to suggest the conflict between good and evil in Mulholland. Mulholland was the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. For reasons of engineering and safety, Mulwray opposes the dam that Cross and the city want to build. Mulwray says he will not make the same mistake as when he built a previous dam, which broke, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This is a direct reference to the St. Francis Dam disaster. The dam was personally inspected by Mulholland before it catastrophically failed the next morning on March 12, 1928. More than 450 people, 42 of them schoolchildren, died that day and the town of Santa Paula was inundated with flood water. The incident effectively ended Mulholland's career and he died in 1935. Margaret Leslie Davis, in her 1993 book Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, says the sexually charged film is a metaphor for the "rape" of the Owens Valley. She notes that it fictionalizes Mulholland into a corrupt and sinister character while underplaying the strong public support for Southern California's controversial water projects.
Robert Towne says he took the title, and the famous exchange, "What did you do in Chinatown?" / "As little as possible", from a Hungarianvice cop who had worked in Chinatown. The cop explained to Towne that the complicated array of dialects and gangs in Los Angeles's Chinatown made it impossible for the police to know whether their interventions in Chinatown were helping victims or furthering their exploitation. As a consequence, the police decided the best course of action was to do as little as possible.
Polanski found out about the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been planning to make a film once they found the right property. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct as well, because he wanted a European vision of the United States, which he thought would be darker and more cynical. Polanski, just a few years removed from the murder of his wife in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return, but was persuaded to accept the project based on the strength of the script.
Towne wrote the screenplay with Nicholson in mind. Evans, the producer, intended the screenplay to have a happy ending with Cross dying and Evelyn Mulwray surviving. Evans and Polanski argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special," Polanski said, "not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die." Evans and Polanski parted ways due to the dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene just a few days before it was shot.
The original script was over 180 pages. Polanski eliminated Gittes' voiceover narration, which was written in the script, and structured the movie so the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did.
Polanski originally offered the cinematographer position to William A. Fraker, Paramount agreed and Fraker accepted. Paramount had previously hired Fraker to shoot for Polanski on Rosemary's Baby. When Robert Evans became aware of the hiring he insisted the offer be rescinded. Evans, who had also produced Rosemary's Baby, felt pairing Polanski and Fraker created a team with too much power on one side, and would thus complicate the production.
Characters and casting
"J.J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
"Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to Towne, intended to initially seem to be the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually revealed to be the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role, but Polanski pushed for Dunaway.
"Noah Cross": Towne said that Huston was, after Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film, and that he made the Cross character evil through his charming and courtly performance.
Polanski appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose. The effect was accomplished with a special knife which indeed could have cut Nicholson's nose if Polanski had not held it correctly. In keeping with the tradition Polanski credits to Raymond Chandler, all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through Gittes's eyes; for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and then fades back in when he awakens. Gittes appears in every scene of the film.
Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score, but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans, leaving Jerry Goldsmith only ten days to write and record a new one. Parts of the original Lambro score can be heard in the original trailer for the movie. The haunting trumpet solos were performed by Hollywood studio musician and MGM first trumpet Uan Rasey. The soundtrack was released through Varèse Sarabande on 7 November 1995 and features twelve tracks of score at a running time just over thirty minutes.
Evans says that the film cemented Jack Nicholson, then a rising star, as one of Hollywood's top leading men.
Robert Towne's screenplay for the film has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often celebrated as one of the best ever written. However, it was Roman Polanski who decided about filming the fatal final scene, changing Towne's idea of a happy ending.
Chinatown brought more public awareness to the land dealings and disputes over water rights which arose while drawing Los Angeles' water supply from the Owens Valley in the 1930s.
The film holds a 100% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 50 reviews. Metacritic assigned a rating of 86/100 based on 10 critic reviews.
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