When you are talking about film noir, “Chinatown” is inevitably going to come up. There are many who consider it one of the best – perhaps the best – example of that genre. It manages to work both as a period piece and as a ‘70s film, with Jack Nicholson smartly cast as a private eye in a little over his head. These are 20 facts about “Chinatown.” Don’t forget them.
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The screenwriter turned down an adaptation to work on his own idea
Legendary producer Robert Evans wanted to work with screenwriter Robert Towne. Evans offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Towne didn’t feel like he could really do the novel justice, so instead, he asked to write a film based on his own idea. Instead of $175,000, Towne got $25,000 to write “Chinatown.”
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The film is inspired by real events
“Chinatown” is a film noir with a private eye and everything, but it also has a larger picture story. It’s a dramatization of the water wars that took over Los Angeles at one point. The character of Hollis Mulwray is reportedly based on William Mulholland, who was the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He used that role to wield a ton of power. The road Mulholland Drive is named after him.
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Towne was planning on a trilogy
Towne already had an idea for three films starring private eye J.J. Gittes. “Chinatown” was the first story, and “The Two Jakes” was made in 1990. That film flopped, though, which led to his planned third film “Gittes vs. Gittes” to never be made.
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Towne had Jack Nicholson in mind
A lot of screenwriters envision certain actors in roles when writing a script. It makes things easier. Towne, for example, always had Nicholson in mind for Gittes. Fortunately for Towne, Nicholson liked the script, and they didn’t need to consider anybody else for the lead role.
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Nicholson got the director on board
First, we do acknowledge it’s not fun to write about Roman Polanski these days. Nevertheless, he was an accomplished and acclaimed director before he had to flee the country to avoid prosecution. Nicholson and Polanski had been wanting to work on a project together, and it was Nicholson who showed the script to Polanski. Evans was on board as well, believing a European outsider would have an interesting perspective on the story.
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Polanski changed the script quite a bit
There were a few ways in which Polanski made the movie his own. For starters, he removed narration from Gittes. He also reordered the way the story was told so that Gittes and the audience would be figuring things out at the same time. Most significantly, Polanski changed the ending significantly. In Towne’s script, Noah Cross died and Evelyn Mulwray survived.
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Jake’s name is a shout out to a friend of Nicholson’s
J.J. “Jake” Gittes got his last name through Nicholson. He’s named after producer Harry Gittes, a friend of the actor. The rest of the name came from Towne.
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Faye Dunaway wasn’t the only actress considered for Evelyn
Evelyn Mulwray is one of the iconic noir femme fatales, and the performance of Faye Dunaway is a big reason why. However, it was a real debate whether or not to go with Dunaway or Jane Fonda, who already had an Oscar to her name. Polanski wanted Dunaway, though, so she got the role.
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A legendary actor had a vital acting role
Noah Cross is the ultimate big bad of “Chinatown.” A lesser performance could have really hindered the film. Fortunately, “Chinatown” has a great performance from John Huston at its center. Huston did some acting in his career, but he’s primarily known as a director. Huston is the man behind films like “The Maltese Falcon,” “The African Queen,” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” He won two Oscars for the last of those movies.
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The entire film is from Jake’s perspective
Gittes is not only the protagonist of “Chinatown.” He’s the audience surrogate. We see everything through the eyes of J.J. The private eye is in every single scene, and when he’s knocked unconscious in the film the camera fades out and fades back in when Jake is back awake.
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Polanski and Dunaway did not get along at all
Dunaway had a reputation for being a temperamental actor. When discussing Polanski’s failures as a person there are much more serious things to mention, but he was also an abrasive director. The two got along so poorly that Dunaway left the film in the middle of shooting and had to be coaxed back by Evans.
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The movie has an all-time iconic last line
When you talk about some of the most memorable lines in film history, “Chinatown” delivers. The downer ending of the film culminates with a line you have likely heard even if you haven’t seen the film: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That line made AFI’s list of the 100-best movie quotes, but surprisingly it only finished 74th.
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It got a ton of Oscar nominations
The ‘70s saw a bit of a resurgence for the noir, and “Chinatown” was arguably the pinnacle of that. It received a whopping 11 nominations at the Academy Awards. However, only one of them resulted in a win. Towne won for Best Original Screenplay. Although, since Polanski rewrote the ending of the film Towne might not be responsible for “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
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The movie’s reputation remains strong
In 1974 “Chinatown” was well-received, and it remains a darling of many. In the 10th-anniversary edition of AFI’s top 100 film lists, it finished 21st. British newspaper “The Guardian” liked it even more. In 2010, they named it the best film ever.
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Nicholson and Huston had a connection as well
Nicholson and Huston’s characters in “Chinatown” are antagonistic toward each other. Off-screen, though, things might have also been a little awkward. Around the time that they were making the film, Nicholson had started a relationship with Huston’s daughter Anjelica. The two were together for many years.
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Nicholson really slapped Dunaway
In a brutal and disturbing scene, Mulwray reveals a secret to Gittes while being slapped repeatedly. Originally Nicholson was using stage slaps, but it wasn’t working. Dunaway told Nicholson to just go ahead and actually slap her. While he was reluctant to do so he listened to her demands and in the actual film, you can see the take when he actually slapped her.
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The father of a familiar face has a small role
Does the guy playing the irate farmer in “Chinatown” look familiar? We may know why. That actor is Rance Howard, these days best known as the father of Ron Howard. Yes, Ron’s dad was a character actor who pieced together a career from small roles in film and television.
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There are a few more notable actors in the cast
We’ve mentioned Nicholson, Dunaway, Huston, and Polanski. All four of them are Oscar winners. However, there are three more actors in the cast who have Oscar nominations to their names now. Diane Ladd, Joe Mantell, and Burt Young are all in the film. So is James Hong, who is not an Oscar nominee but has dozens upon dozens of credits to his name.
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The nose-cutting scene was quite tricky to make happen
In the film, a gangster played by Polanski in a cameo slices Jake’s nose. To make that happen a knife was specifically crafted for the purposes of that scene. It had to be handled very carefully by Polanski, otherwise, Nicholson’s nose would have actually been cut. At the time, though, both the director and the star got tired of explaining the process and started saying that Nicholson’s nose was really cut in that scene.
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There may be a prequel (and also maybe a behind-the-scenes film)
While “The Two Jakes” flopped, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more trips to the “Chinatown” well. There was talk in 2019 of Towne working with David Fincher on a prequel series about J.J. Gittes for Netflix. On top of that, Ben Affleck is purportedly writing and directing a movie based on the book “The Big Goodbye,” which tells the story of the making of “Chinatown.”