Examination of a classic 50 years on

Chinatown remains fresh 20 March 2020

Parallelism is interesting. Often events occur decades later where parallels and coincidence can be assigned.

Director John Huston took the unusual step of casting his father Walter in the gritty tale of man’s greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Huston sen., playing a nutty old prospector alongside Humphrey Bogart, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.

Huston jun. was an unusual man (once called ‘the eccentric’s eccentric’ by Paul Newman) and a successful director. His Maltese Falcon (1941), again with Bogart, is regarded by pundits as the greatest detective movie ever made.

Fast forward from post World War II to 1974 and another unusual man and successful director, Roman Polanski, is about to create one of the greatest detective movies ever made, Chinatown (1974).


Like Huston, he is using a friend and great actor in the lead.

Like Huston, Polanski has to find a character actor to play in this gritty tale of man’s greed. He casts John Huston alongside an aspiring Bogart, Jack Nicholson.

One wonders whether Nicholson played his part in the parallel? At the time he was dating Huston’s daughter Anjelica.

The old director didn’t earn an Oscar nomination but his turn as Noah Cross, an old man, sick-in- the-head with power, is lovely to watch.

However, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there is a lot more happening in Chinatown than one old man’s performance.

Robert Towne wrote the screenplay, set in late 1930s Los Angeles and transferred a real event of 1908 into a noir whodunnit. Water is the gold in Chinatown and Los Angeles doesn’t have it. By corruption, Cross has contrived not to bring water to Los Angeles but bring LA to the water by redirecting the city’s supply of which he has deep knowledge.

His nemesis though is Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the city’s chief engineer of water and Cross’s former business partner.

Mulwray enters the story when a woman claiming to be his wife, engages private detective Jake Gittes (Nicholson) to prove her husband is having an affair. This is Jake’s “metier” as he calls it and he soon has evidence of the straight-seeming Mulwray visiting a much younger woman.

All is not as it seems.

Mulwray’s real wife Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) comes to the detective’s office and threatens to sue Gittes. He then has to play catch up trying to work out what is going on. Meanwhile Mr Mulwray disappears and turns up dead in one of the city’s waterways.

What follows is a good tale of detective work with the occasional appearance of honourable policemen, less-smart than Jake; the revelation that Mrs Mulwray is Noah Cross’s daughter; and the girl seen with her husband revealed as her “sister-daughter”. Incest is just another of Noah Cross’s crimes.

Incest and carnal knowledge of a minor provide another parallel because Polanski was never to make another film in the United States. Chinatown was his first time in LA since the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 and two years after the film was released he was charged with various sexual crimes against a girl under 14 years of age.

When he realised he was about to be deported, Polanski skipped the country and ever since has avoided countries that have extradition treaties with the USA.

Despite these horrors, he did make a great film.


The background settings of Los Angeles; the set decoration; and Jake’s impeccable suit-tie combinations are beautifully done. The score by John Goldsmith is rated pitch perfect by reviewers with more knowledge than me but I thought provided just the right subtlety as the action and the tragedy unfolded.

Producer Robert Evans wanted a happy ending but this was 1974 and Towne would have none of it. The reality of The Godfather (1972) and the impending release of The Godfather II (1974) was in the public’s mind. Towne got his way.

(Polanski makes a cameo appearance as one of Cross’s tough guys, famously slicing Jake’s nose rendering Nicholson having to appear for much of the film with a conspicuous face plaster.)

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