The magnificent ’74: Chinatown

Chinatown: or how a real 1974 and a fictional 1937 created a timeless, troubling LA legend.

Chinatown (1974)

“Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive,” wrote Joan Didion in 1977, toward the end of what had been the driest recorded three-year period in California history. But anyone who’s seen Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, released on midsummer eve in 1974, the year that dry spell began, must have reverence for California’s water struggles. Revolving around a fictional 1937 Los Angeles County irrigation scandal, it came five years after the murder of the director’s wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family, during Nixon’s fall and the painful late stages of the Vietnam War, amid drought and gas shortages. In every off-screen dripping tap and every barely trickling culvert, in each pithy gallows-humour joke and each perverse twist of fate, Chinatown reflects its own bone-dry era, when all life-giving fluids were running low: water, gasoline, the oil that lubricates the gears of justice, the milk of human kindness.

Chinatown represents a creative zenith for almost everyone involved in its making, from the performances to John Alonzo’s photography, to Sam O’Steen’s editing, to the Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne (and Edward Taylor – whose uncredited role in writing the script was revealed in Sam Wasson’s chatty 2021 making-of book The Big Goodbye, which has been optioned by Ben Affleck), all set to Jerry Goldsmith’s lonely-horny-lazy score, with its sleazy solo trumpet blare that sounds like sex but, as the trumpet player responsible said, “Not good sex.” 

In fact, Chinatown boasts such convincing storytelling that in his wonderfully irascible 2003 doc Los Angeles Plays Itself Thom Andersen complains that its deftly constructed account of watercourse wrangling at the end of the Depression era has acquired the status of accepted LA lore. “Chinatown isn’t a docudrama,” he chides us to remember, “it’s a fiction” – an admonition echoed by David Thomson in his 2004 book The Whole Equation. Thomson, seeking to correct the misapprehension that “southern California… began with the movie business,” writes: “The whole story of Chinatown… has added to [that] illusion.” Yet no matter how much historians may seek to debunk its rewiring of LA’s origin story, they also cannot but participate in bolstering that very mythos: Andersen’s crammed film dedicates a lengthy segment to Polanski’s movie; Thomson’s book, subtitled A Hollywood History, prefaces its first chapter with a still from Chinatown.

Chinatown (1974)

The picture Thomson chooses features John Huston’s repellent colossus Noah Cross alongside Jack Nicholson’s divorce detective Jake Gittes. Even here there are clues as to Chinatown’s reality/fiction-­mussing magic trick: Huston, director of proto-noir The Maltese Falcon (1941), shows up in the ultimate neo-noir to play the monstrous father of beautiful doomed Evelyn Mulwray (an immaculately brittle Faye Dunaway), with whom Jake is in love. But Nicholson had just started an on-off relationship with Anjelica Huston, so when Cross asks Jake, nastily, if he’s sleeping with his daughter, the question cuts across the bias of fiction into something real. Yet even that reality – in which Hollywood stars date Hollywood stars who are the daughters of Hollywood legends – is steeped in the mythmaking glamour of the movies. 

That’s a relatively benign example of how Chinatown encodes its 1970s zeitgeist into its imaginary 1930s. Far darker are the ways it echoes Tate’s murder and even foreshadows crimes not yet committed. Even though Polanski had made Macbeth (1971) and the seldom mentioned comedy What? (1972) in the interim, Chinatown is his most overt reaction to the grotesque murder of his pregnant partner. It’s particularly clear in the ending that Polanski famously changed, jettisoning the original optimistic, justice-served resolution in favour of the astoundingly bleak unluckiness of Evelyn’s death, with Cross, her rapist father, going free to raise the daughter/granddaughter he covets. It’s not just the fact of Evelyn’s death, but its manner, full of malicious intent yet also somehow random, that reflects the awful circumstances of Tate’s violent end. “There is no lesson to be taken. There is just nothing. It’s absolutely senseless,” Wasson quotes Polanski as saying about the Manson murders, and that the movie’s ending embodies this despairing anti-wisdom is as inarguable as the fact that three years after Chinatown Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, then fled the country to evade justice for his own heinous violation of a minor. 

However we might desire to isolate it from the transgressions of its makers, Chinatown cannot be neatly excised from this continuum any more than it can be divorced from its context within the history of California drought management, municipal corruption and industry-town self-mythologising, or any more than we can ignore the inherent racism of a title location chosen as metaphor for an inscrutable place in which nothing makes any sense and no good can ever happen. If anything, the film’s existence at the tangled nexus of so many strands of significance that stretch, as in an obsessive detective’s red-string diagram, between Hollywood and the world, and between 1974’s attitudes – towards sex, race, violence, auteurism, class, politics and film industry power dynamics – and those of today, contributes to its endlessly re-parsable legacy. In an era of great American films, it is perhaps the film that makes this year stand out from any other, not despite its tawdrier associations but partly because of them, because of the inborn distortions of its lens. Chinatown, the troubling and sublime epicentre of 1974 at the movies, is the flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris.

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