A private-eye who specializes in adultery cases is hired by a woman to investigate the infidelities of her alleged husband, the water commissioner for the city of Los Angeles. As the film-noir plot unfolds, the detective gets in way over his head in a case involving the illegal damming of water out of a drought-striken area, corrupt politicians grabbing up land, and a prominent family's long-hidden dark secret. The various plot strains come together at the end of the film in the Chinatown section of the city, the part of town where the law always seems to lose out to other "mysterious" forces at play.
"It's just Chinatown, Jake." The opaque shrug that ends this 1970s classic embodies the film's world-weary depiction of people who are never what they seem and dark motives that dwell deep below the surface. Like the water that drives the plot, secrets in Chinatown have a way of bubbling up in the most unexpected places, as detective Jake Gittes (Nicholson) discovers when he takes on Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) as a client. Not so much a recreation of the classic-era Chandler and Hammett private-eye stories as an outright celebration of the depravity they only hinted at. A stunning achievement for both Polansky and Towne. Followed by Nicholson's direction of The Two Jakes in 1990.
In 1906, Los Angeles went through a scandal known as The Rape of the Owens Valley. Los Angeles is essentially built on a desert, and as the city started to expand in the early years of this century, water was in short supply. Soon enough, a full-fledged drought was in effect. City planners needed to get water from a source other than Los Angeles and the closest body of water they found (besides the Pacific Ocean) was the Owens River, about 250 miles north of the city. Prospectors, politicians and others decided to buy up the rights to the river, and the land outside of L.A. (the San Fernando Valley) and create a lush, green oasis in the valley, meanwhile leaving the city to dry up. They would later propose a bond to the Los Angeles city council to feed the river into the city via aqueduct, in turn selling off the irrigated San Fernando land at enormous profit. Until the bond was passed, the prospectors virtually man-made the drought by pumping excess water from the river out to the ocean, knowing that when the bond passed, they would make a fortune. In exposing the unapologetic and capitalistic corruption at all levels in the early planning of Los Angeles, "Chinatown" is one of the only Hollywood studio films to take a counter-cinema, or, as its known in the field of cinema studies, "third cinema" approach in its critique of Los Angeles' politics and urban history.
The film very closely observes the direction and stylization of film-noirs from the 1930s and 40s, which is considered the classic period for films of this genre. One of its inspirations is Raymond Chandler's notorious private-eye, Philip Marlowe, and another is Howard Hawkes' "The Big Sleep," the 1946 film version of Chandler's first novel where Humphrey Bogart plays Marlowe.
Director Polanski also went to painstaking lengths to have the film very authentically capture the 1930s in Los Angeles because the story is based on actual events from the city's history.
In 1991, "Chinatown" was selected for the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. It was thereby designated a "national treasure." In 1990-91 it was re-released in first-run theaters here and in Europe.
Shot in Technicolor and Panavision in Los Angeles, California.
Other cast members include: Fritz Burr (Mulwray's Secretary), Charles Knapp (Mortician), Claudio Martinez (Boy on Horseback), Federico Roberto (Cross's Butler), Allan Warwick (Clerk), and Cecil Elliott (Emma Dill).
Polanski's first American film since the 1968 "Rosemary's Baby" which starred Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon.
In 1990, "Chinatown" star Jack Nicholson went on to direct and star in the film's sequel "The Two Jakes," set in 1948 Los Angeles. The later film also starred Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, and featured cameo performances by some actors who had parts in the original film, among them Faye Dunaway, James Hong, and Perry Lopez. Robert Towne wrote the screenplays for both films.
Titles by Wayne Fitzgerald.