In 1991, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and it is frequently listed as one of the greatest films of all time. At the 47th Academy Awards, it was nominated for 11 Oscars, with Towne winning Best Original Screenplay. The Golden Globe Awards honored it for Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute placed it second among mystery films in 2008.
A woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes to surveil her husband, Hollis Mulwray, 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, which are published on the front page of the following day's paper. Back at his office, Gittes is confronted by a woman who informs him she is the real Evelyn Mulwray and that he can expect a lawsuit.
Realizing he was set up, Gittes assumes that Mulwray's husband is the real target. Before he can question him, Lieutenant Lou Escobar fishes Mulwray, drowned, from a freshwater reservoir. Under retainer to Mrs. Mulwray, Gittes investigates his suspicions of murder and notices that although huge quantities of water are released from the reservoir every night, the land is almost dry. Gittes is warned off by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill and a henchman who slashes Gittes's nose. Back at his office, Gittes receives a call from Ida Sessions, who identifies herself as the imposter Mrs. Mulwray. She is afraid to identify her employer but tells Gittes to check the day's obituaries.
Gittes learns that Mulwray was once the business partner of his wife's wealthy father, Noah Cross. Over lunch at his personal club, Cross warns Gittes that he does not understand the forces at work, and offers to double Gittes's fee to search for Mulwray's missing mistress. At the hall of records, Gittes discovers that much of the Northwest Valley has recently changed ownership. Investigating the valley, he is attacked by angry landowners who believe he is an agent of the water department attempting to force them out by sabotaging their water supply.
Gittes deduces that the water department is drying up the land so it can be bought at a reduced price and that Mulwray was murdered when he discovered the plan. He discovers that a former retirement-home resident is one of the valley's new landowners and seemingly purchased the property a week after his death. Gittes and Evelyn bluff their way into the home and confirm that the real-estate deals were surreptitiously completed in the names of several of the home's residents. Their visit is interrupted by the suspicious retirement-home director, who has called Mulvihill.
After fleeing Mulvihill and his thugs, Gittes and Evelyn hide at Evelyn's house and sleep together. Early in the morning, Evelyn gets a phone call and must leave suddenly; she warns Gittes that her father is dangerous. Gittes follows her car to a house, where he spies her through the windows comforting Mulwray's mistress. He accuses Evelyn of holding the woman against her will, but she confesses that the woman is her sister.
The next day, an anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions's apartment, where he finds her murdered and Escobar waiting for his arrival. Escobar tells him the coroner's report found salt water in Mulwray's lungs, indicating that he did not drown in the freshwater reservoir where his body was found. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder and tells Gittes to produce her quickly. At Evelyn's mansion, Gittes finds her servants packing her things. He realizes her garden pond is salt water and discovers a pair of bifocals in it. He confronts Evelyn about her "sister", whom Evelyn now claims is her daughter. After Gittes slaps her, she admits that the woman, Katherine, is her sister and her daughter: her father raped her when she was 15. She says that the eyeglasses are not Mulwray's, as he did not wear bifocals.
Gittes arranges for the women to flee to Mexico and instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown. He summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal. Cross admits his intention to annex the Northwest Valley into the City of Los Angeles, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes accuses Cross of murdering Mulwray. Cross takes the bifocals at gunpoint, and he and Mulvihill force Gittes to drive them to the women. When they reach the Chinatown address, the police are already there and detain Gittes. When Cross approaches Katherine, Evelyn shoots him in the arm and drives away with Katherine. The police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released. Lawrence Walsh, one of Gittes's associates, tells him: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
In 1971 producer Robert Evans offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he could not better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Instead, Towne asked for $25,000 from Evans to write his own story, Chinatown, to which Evans agreed.
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 character of Hollis Mulwray is presumed to have been inspired by and loosely based on Irish immigrant William Mulholland (1855–1935), the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who oversaw the construction of the 230-mile aqueduct that carries water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.
Author Vincent Brook considers real-life Mulholland to be split, in the film, into "noble Water and Power chief Hollis Mulwray" and "mobster muscle Claude Mulvihill," just as Land syndicate and Combination members, who "exploited their insider knowledge" on account of "personal greed," are "condensed into the singular, and singularly monstrous, Noah Cross."
In the film, Mulwray opposes the dam that Noah Cross and the city wanted, for reasons of engineering and safety, arguing he would not repeat his previous mistake as when his dam broke resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This alludes to the disaster of the St. Francis Dam, when the dam had been inspected by Mulholland on the day of its catastrophic failure just before midnight on March 12, 1928. As many as 600 people (including 42 school-aged children) died that day and the Santa Clara River Valley, including the town of Santa Paula, was inundated with flood water, the event thus also effectively ending Mulholland's career.
According to Robert Towne, Carey McWilliams's Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) and a West magazine article called "Raymond Chandler's L.A." inspired his original screenplay. In a letter to McWilliams, Towne wrote that Southern California Country "really changed my life. It taught me to look at the place where I was born, and convinced me to write about it."
Towne wrote the screenplay with Jack Nicholson in mind. He took the title (and the exchange, "What did you do in Chinatown?" / "As little as possible") from a Hungarian vice cop who had worked in Chinatown and explained to the writer that the complicated array of dialects and gangs in Los Angeles's Chinatown made it impossible for the police to know whether their interventions were helping victims or furthering their exploitation.
Polanski learned of the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been searching for a suitable joint project. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct for his European vision of the United States, which Evans believed would be darker and more cynical. Polanski, a few years removed from the murder of his wife and unborn child in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return but was persuaded on the strength of the script.
Evans wanted Cross to die and Evelyn Mulwray to survive. The producer and director 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." They parted ways over this dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene a few days before it was shot.
The original script was more than 180 pages and included a narration by Gittes; Polanski cut that and reordered the story so the audience and Gittes unraveled the mysteries at the same time."J. J. Gittes" was named after Nicholson's friend, producer Harry Gittes.
"Evelyn Mulwray" is, according to Towne, intended to initially seem the classic "black widow" character typical of lead female characters in film noir, yet is eventually made the only selfless character in the film. Jane Fonda was strongly considered for the role; but Polanski insisted on 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 menacing, through his 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.
William A. Fraker accepted the cinematographer position from Polanski when Paramount agreed. He had worked with the studio previously in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Robert Evans, never consulted about the decision, insisted that the offer be rescinded since he felt pairing Polanski and Fraker again would create a team with too much control over the project and complicate the production. Fraker was replaced by John A. Alonzo.
In keeping with a technique Polanski attributes to Raymond Chandler, all of the events of the film are seen subjectively through the main character's eyes; for example, when Gittes is knocked unconscious, the film fades to black and fades in when he awakens. Gittes appears in every scene of the film.
Jerry Goldsmith composed and recorded the film's score in ten days, after producer Robert Evans rejected Phillip Lambro's original effort at the last minute. It received an Academy Award nomination and remains widely praised, ranking 9th on the American Film Institute's list of the top 25 American film scores. Goldsmith's score, with "haunting" trumpet solos by Hollywood studio musician and MGM's first trumpet Uan Rasey, was released through ABC Records and features twelve tracks at a running time just over thirty minutes. It was later reissued on CD by the Varèse Sarabande label. Uan Rasey related that Goldsmith "told [him] to play it sexy — but like it’s not good sex!
- "Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title)"
- "Noah Cross"
- "Easy Living"
- "Jake and Evelyn"
- "I Can't Get Started"
- "The Last of Ida"
- "The Captive"
- "The Boy on a Horse"
- "The Way You Look Tonight"
- "The Wrong Clue"
- "J.J. Gittes"
- "Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)"
In his 2004 film essay and documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, film scholar Thom Andersen lays out the complex relationship between Chinatown’s script and its historical background:
Robert Towne took an urban myth about the founding of Los Angeles on water stolen from the Owens River Valley and made it resonate. Chinatown isn’t a docudrama, it’s a fiction. The water project it depicts isn’t the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, engineered by William Mulholland before the First World War. Chinatown is set in 1938, not 1905. The Mullholland-like figure—"Hollis Mulwray"—isn’t the chief architect of the project, but rather its strongest opponent, who must be discredited and murdered. Mulwray is against the "Alto Vallejo Dam" because it’s unsafe, not because it’s stealing water from somebody else…. But there are echoes of Mullholland’s aqueduct project in Chinatown…. Mullholland’s project enriched its promoters through insider land deals in the San Fernando Valley, just like the dam project in Chinatown. The disgruntled San Fernando Valley farmers of Chinatown, forced to sell off their land at bargain prices because of an artificial drought, seem like stand-ins for the Owens Valley settlers whose homesteads turned to dust when Los Angeles took the water that irrigated them. The "Van Der Lip Dam" disaster, which Hollis Mulwray cites to explain his opposition to the proposed dam, is an obvious reference to the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam in 1928. Mullholland built this dam after completing the aqueduct and its failure was the greatest man-made disaster in the history of California. These echoes have led many viewers to regard Chinatown, not only as docudrama, but as truth—the real secret history of how Los Angeles got its water. And it has become a ruling metaphor of the non-fictional critiques of Los Angeles development.
The film earned $29 million at the North American box office.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times was not impressed with the screenplay as compared to the film's predecessors, saying: "Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep", but noted Nicholson's performance, calling it the film's "major contribution to the genre".
On Rotten Tomatoes Chinatown has an approval rating of 98% based on 60 reviews, with an average rating of 9.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "As bruised and cynical as the decade that produced it, this noir classic benefits from Robert Towne's brilliant screenplay, director Roman Polanski's steady hand, and wonderful performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway." Metacritic assigned a score of 86 out of 100, based on 10 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Roger Ebert added it to his "Great Movies" list, saying that Nicholson's performance was "key in keeping Chinatown from becoming just a genre crime picture", along with Towne's screenplay, concluding that the film "seems to settle easily beside the original noirs".
Towne's screenplay has become legendary among critics and filmmakers, often cited as one of the best examples of the craft, though Polanski decided on the fatal final scene. While it has been reported that Towne envisioned a happy ending, he has denied these claims and said simply that he initially found Polanski's ending to be excessively melodramatic. He explained in a 1997 interview, "The way I had seen it was that Evelyn would kill her father but end up in jail for it, unable to give the real reason why it happened. And the detective [Jack Nicholson] couldn't talk about it either, so it was bleak in its own way." Towne retrospectively concluded that "Roman was right", later arguing that Polanski's stark and simple ending, due to the complexity of the events preceding it, was more fitting than his own, which he described as equally bleak but "too complicated and too literary."
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 1910s. 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 and notes that it fictionalizes Mulholland, while concealing the strong public support for Southern California's water projects.
The film won one Academy Award of the eleven total nomination categories:Wins
Best Original Screenplay – Robert Towne
Best Picture – Robert Evans
Best Director – Roman Polanski
Best Actor – Jack Nicholson
Best Actress – Faye Dunaway
Best Film Editing – Sam O'Steen
Best Art Direction – Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell, Ruby Levitt
Best Costume Design – Anthea Sylbert
Best Cinematography – John A. Alonzo
Best Sound Mixing – Bud Grenzbach, Larry Jost
Best Music Score – Jerry Goldsmith
Best Motion Picture – Drama – Robert Evans
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama – Jack Nicholson
Best Director – Roman Polanski
Best Screenplay – Robert Towne
Best Actor in a Supporting Role – John Huston
Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama – Faye Dunaway
Best Original Score – Jerry Goldsmith
1975 – BAFTA, Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Direction, Best Screenplay
1975 – Edgar Award, Best Motion Picture Screenplay – Robert Towne
1991 – National Film Registry
2010 – Best film of all time, The Guardian
American Film Institute recognition1998 – AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Ranked 19th
2001 – AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Ranked 16th
2003 – AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Noah Cross – Ranked 16th Villain
J.J. "Jake" Gittes – Nominated Hero
2005 – AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." – Ranked 74th
"She's my sister! She's my daughter!" – Nominated
2005 – AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Ranked 9th
2007 – AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Ranked 21st
2008 – AFI's 10 Top 10 mystery film – Ranked 2nd