Great Movie Rewatch: Chinatown (1974)

Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

It’s the film’s most celebrated line, but with a second viewing, ‘forgetting it’ is precisely what you won’t be doing. Here’s why it’s time to revisit this neo-noir crime thriller starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway…

David Fincher and Spike Lee are just two top directors to have listed it amongst their favourite films, and it scored a host of awards back in 1975 -plus a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations!

Here are 5 more need-to-knows about this gripping mystery classic…


Director Roman Polanski was determined to conjure the spirit of Raymond Chandler‘s 1930’s LA detective stories for the film, and so shot the entire movie from the perspective of the main character, detective J.J ‘Jake’ Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson). He appears in every scene, with all the action seen subjectively through his eyes; for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and fades in when he awakens.

Writer Robert Towne developed the character of Gittes, however, as a reversal of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, making him more of a dandy, and vain – the opposite of the hardboiled detective; cynical, yes, but with an idealistic streak.


Even the smaller, side characters in this movie, like Lieutenant Louis Escobar, and Wally the mortician – who only has one or two lines of dialogue – are fully fleshed and unforgettable, reflecting the painstaking attention to detail in Polanski’s casting and Towne’s inspired creation of backstories for each character.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are both excellent in their central roles and John Huston, particularly, plays the villain Noah Cross superbly as a charming, gentlemanly father figure, with a sinister air of evil simmering just below the surface.

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Things got off to a shaky start with the making of the movie, with Polanski’s first cameraman, Stanley Cortez, soon replaced with John Alonzo – a move which apparently turned the film around. Its score was also rewritten at the last minute, with Phillip Lambro’s version considered a complete disaster (!), so they brought in Jerry Goldsmith at the eleventh hour who turned in an excellent new score.

Polanski also made key changes to the original script, cutting it down from 180 pages or so and rewriting the parts that featured voiceover narration from Gittes, as he felt the audience needed to discover the clues at the same time as his central character.


Although Polanski and Towne worked closely on structural changes, one element of the script that was left alone was dialogue – a key strength of Towne’s writing, and what helped him towards his 1975 Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay. Now regarded as one of the most ‘perfect’ screenplays ever written in terms of structure, characters and dialogue, it’s a main teaching point in screenwriting seminars and classes around the world.

Loach: What happened to your nose, Gittes? Somebody slammed a bedroom window on it?

Jake Gittes: Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick. You understand what I mean, pal?


Polanski famously argued with almost everyone involved in this film; Towne and the producer Robert Evans on the story’s ending and final scene;  Jack Nicholson, on the actor’s persistent stalling when it came to shooting scenes (he was watching L.A. Lakers basketball games on a portable TV which Polanski reportedly smashed up with a mop); even Faye Dunaway, from whom he allegedly pulled out some strands of hair in one of many heated exchanges! Jeeez.

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At the time of filming, Jack Nicholson had begun a serious relationship with actress Anjelica Huston – the daughter of John Huston, who was playing Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross. This made Nicholson and Huston’s scenes more than a tad uncomfortable, especially as the one time Anjelica was on set was the day they filmed the scene where Noah Cross interrogates Nicholson’s character with “Mr Gittes… do you sleep with my daughter?”


And another thing…

Towne took the title (and the exchange, “What did you do in Chinatown?” / “As little as possible”) from a Hungarian vice cop who worked in Chinatown and had told the writer that the area’s complex network of gangs and range of dialects made it hard for the police to know whether their interventions were actually helping victims or in fact furthering their exploitation.

Have you seen Chinatown? What’s your favourite scene of the movie?



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