Chinatown - Dissecting the Screenplay

By Christian Hartsock

Robert Towne’s ​Chinatown ​is some of the most efficient screenwriting in the history of screenwriting ​and​ storytelling. Yet it never feels as if it’s in a hurry. It isn’t, like most linear story structures, a succession of collapsing dominoes–most of the dominoes have collapsed before the opening scene–it is a ​Gaussian blur​;​ each story beat an F-stop bringing the big picture closer into focus. ​The tension rises not only with what ​happens,​ but with every revelation of what ​did happen (which–more often than otherwise–isn’t even what actually happened).

A product of Watergate-plagued 1974, the film seems to suggest that big government intrigue is hardly a novelty, and that there is hardly this classically assumed sibling rivalry with its big business counterpart, but more an incestuous symbiosis (pun only unconsciously intended). And to authenticate such a suggestion, as the quintessential ​neo-noir,​ enlists the genre tropes of then-yesteryear, both subverting them and revering them equally.

Hardboiled archetype Jake Gittes is an embodied mosaic of the Philip Marlowes, Sam Spades, Mike Hammers and Continental Ops that came before him. Cheekily cynical, emotionally divested, surgically streetwise, Gittes’ every shrewd deduction of the newest mystery seems coldly mathematical and empirically derivative; he knows all the plays, all the formulas, and by unsolicited necessity, knows human nature better than most academic students of human nature, let alone most humans. He approaches a new case as an SAT exam; filling in the blanks with reference experience. He’s rendered services for as many cuckolds and damsels in distress​ ​as we’ve seen classic noir movies and read vintage pulp. (​“Mrs. Mulwray”:​ “​My husband, I believe, is seeing another woman.” Gittes​: ​(monotone)​ “​No. Really?​”) He’s been here before. Many times. Too many times. Don’t ask.

And like Chandler’s Marlowe, the deeper Gittes investigates, the less he even knows ​what​ he’s investigating, or for that matter who’s paying him–let alone ​if​ he’ll be paid. But he keeps going. His stakes are fluidly interchangeable–money, life and death, mere curiosity–liable to shift from scene to scene. Incentives are incidental; he simply is what he does, whether he particularly likes to do it or not. He doesn’t necessarily know what his own motivation is at a given moment; he doesn’t need to know; someone may or may not be paying him to investigate Hollis Mulwray, but no one’s paying him to investigate that.

And deep beneath this archetypically cool exterior swims an elusive vulnerability, as infrequently spotted as the Loch Ness. And behind the characteristically dispassionate front, in between his character beats is a connective tissue of infracturable ethical resolve. It isn’t advertised, much less expected of others. It’s either imparted in sporadic pearls of street-wisdom, or–in Gittes’ case–the occasional statutory declaration: ​“I’d never extort a nickel out of my worst enemy, that’s where I draw the line.” “People don’t come to me unless they’re miserable and I help ‘em out of a bad situation. I don’t kick them out of their homes like you jerks who work in the bank!” “I make an honest living!”

Professional lie detection would classify such ​“resume statements”​ as classic manipulators. But in Gittes’ case, we know he’s being genuine. And like the first cinematized noir archetype–Hammet’s Sam Spade in ​The Maltese Falcon​–Gittes’ carnal investments in the femme fatale​ never get the best of his thankless obeisance to the law and willingness to turn her in. In fact they don’t even get a hearing.

We know this from his sightful instinct after having witnessed Evelyn tending to “Mulwray’s girlfriend” (as Towne himself deliberately misdescribes her on page 96): ​“Okay give me the keys — it’s either that or you drive to the police yourself…C’mon Mrs. Mulwray–you’ve got your husband’s girlfriend tied up in there!” ​And again on page 109 when he presumptuously cues his quasi-nemesis LAPD Lt. Lou Escobar to arrest the object of his affection before he’s even heard her out. Gittes never gets credit for these unwitnessed deferences to the law, and to the contrary remains in perennial informal probation under the handcuff-happy Escobar.

To Gittes’ periodic declarations of virtue, Noah Cross has his own succinctly eloquent declaration and defense of vice–which is by extension a diagnosis of human nature. As to ​why he raped his daughter–in Evelyn’s telling there are some usable Freudian forensics–but Cross’s explanation is hauntingly profound: ​“You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of a​nything​.”​ And in this moment one might gauge that in no previously composed sentence in the annals of the English language has any one word held more horrifying capacity for evil than this use of the word “​anything​.”

There is little dramatic irony in the film; we know only as much as Gittes knows, when he knows it. He is an observer of a Monet painting; starting with a mess of brush strokes, getting a clearer picture with each step back–and erstwhile closer to danger. And while each successive vantage point ​seems​ to clarify the bigger picture, it only truly clarifies our (and Gittes’) ​presumptions​ of the bigger picture.

In fact, we graduate through at least ten assumptive paradigms before we arrive at the truth–and we don’t necessarily get warmer with each. There is little correlation between the chronology of the paradigm shifts and any progress towards comprehension. Even genuinely factual discoveries act as red herrings; our minds trick us into misappropriating each new revelation, but there are no hard feelings; Gittes, whom we come to know as an impeccably intuitive investigator, is as stumped by them as we are. In fact he would remain such were it not for Evelyn’s climactic explanation.


  • Paradigm 1: ​“Mrs. Mulwray” hired Gittes to confirm her husband’s adultery. The young woman is his girlfriend.
  • Paradigm 2: ​Gittes was deceived; collateral damage in a set-up aimed at Mulwray.
  • Paradigm 3: ​Evelyn was cheating on Hollis, and this is a remake of ​Double Indemnity.
  • Paradigm 4: ​Russ Yelburton hired Gittes to sabotage Hollis in service of the dam project.
  • Paradigm 5: ​Hollis was murdered because he knew about the water scheme.
  • Paradigm 6: ​Hollis had an affair. Evelyn murdered Hollis and his lover in a crime of passion.
  • Paradigm 7: ​Evelyn murdered Hollis in a crime of passion, kidnapped his lover to keep her quiet.
  • Paradigm 8: ​Ida hired Gittes to set up Hollis, Evelyn then murdered Hollis by having him drowned in the reservoir. ​(Escobar’s contribution).
  • Paradigm 9: ​Hollis was drowned in the ocean, then his body was moved to the reservoir to divert suspicions it was over his having discovered the drainage pipe.
  • Paradigm 10: ​Evelyn drowned Hollis in her saltwater pond, and kidnapped his girlfriend who witnessed it. This explains why his glasses were left in the pond, and why she’s now fleeing to Mexico.

None of these are in-artful deductions. The viewer never feels misdirected into any of these paradigms; in fact the viewer is flattered for having channeled Gittes’ acumen and arrived at them. But they are all wrong, and each is hardly closer to the truth than the last.

But unlike a more pedestrian ​whodunnit,​ these red herrings aren’t gimmicky mind-twisters thrown in for sport; they are as thematically relevant as–if not more so than–the actual truth of the matter. Each iteration of assumed resolution is a unit comprising what the film ​is a​ bout: Fractured impressions.

Each character’s impression of the truth, and of one another is fractured by experience, prejudice, presumption, pain, longing, and even expertise. Gittes’ traumatic past experience has fractured his impression of Chinatown–and by extension, Chinese–and by conflation, Japanese: His over amusement at his barber’s joke about “the Chinaman tired of screwing his wife”–and eagerness to relay it to his colleagues as if it were a crack in a case; his mild derision of the Japanese gardener’s pronunciation–​“Yeah, sure, ‘bad for the glass.’”

Escobar’s impression of Gittes seems irreparably tainted by whatever the details of their mutual past in Chinatown are, by his perennial presumption of Gittes’ guilt. This is despite Gittes’ generous appraisal of Escobar as “very” capable, honest “far as it goes,” and, maintaining the aquatic motif–”of course he has to swim in the same water we all do.”

Yet Gittes’ rugged honesty never seems to merit Escobar’s trust, but neither for that matter does Escobar’s acumen always rightly merit Gittes’ (​“Maybe you a​ re​ as dumb as you think I think you are.​”). While they’re both characteristically cynical–their impression of the human condition necessarily tainted by their front-row seats to its gutters–Escobar is either alas more cynical than Gittes, or his cynicism is simply less artful than Gittes’.

For his incurious readiness to rule Hollis Mulwray’s death “an accident,” Escobar very self-awaredly cites his tainted impression of Mulwray personally. (​Gittes: “What’d he do, Lou, make a pass at your sister?” Escobar: “No–he drowned a cousin of mine with about five hundred other people​. ​But–they weren’t very important. Just a bunch of dumb Mexicans living by a dam.”)​

And of course the viewer’s perception is systematically fractured by each confounding detour through this Byzantine mess of lies, conspiracies, double-crossings, and even misleadingly ​true revelations. These riddles-within-riddles are the units of thematic measurement within the film, scalable down to each page, and, while Towne may disclaim intention, a recurrence of apparent motifs in the form of asymmetrical dichotomies, or ​tainted twins:​

-After having planted Ingersoll pocket watches beneath the front wheel of Mulwray’s car, we see in his office a close-up of two pocket watches: One has its crystal fractured, the other doesn’t.

-We learn of two Mrs. Mulwrays; one real, the other an impostor.

-When Gittes inspects the reservoir, and is caught trespassing, Roman Polanski’s cameo thug slashes his left nostril. Polanski even verbalizes one motif here–​nosiness​, as if inserting a director’s commentary to say ​“Get it?”-​ -but the image of two nostrils, one mutilated, may be servicing another.

-Of the Cross-Mulwray partnership in the Department of Water and Power, we learn that one partner’s motive was public service–bringing the utility (​Water)​ to the people, the other’s was greed (​Power)​ .

-We learn that each name of the deeded Owens Valley landowners has a dual identity: That of the legitimate, unwitting trustee, and that of the Albacore conspirator standing to reap the proceeds in the former’s name.

-Most pertinent to the conflict of flawed perception, before he kisses Evelyn, Gittes notices “something black in the green part” of one of her eyes, which she explains as a “flaw in the iris…sort of like a birthmark.”

-When Gittes decides to follow Eveylyn’s car, he first shatters her right rear tail light, so as to keep track of the one-tail light Packard.

-We learn of two daughters–one the legitimate daughter of Noah Cross, the other an illegitimate product of incest with the former.

-And finally, when Evelyn’s body is found we find the fatal exit wound through her left eye: The permanent “birth mark” now replaced with a permanent death mark.

If these weren’t deliberate, then they might best be attributable to the intelligent design of the film. Offering credit to the Lynchian theory of the Artist as conduit to preexisting supernatural conveyances, it may follow that such perfections are wont to fall into natural order. And not to skip credit to the Noah Cross theory of human nature–that with the right film, and the right script, an artist might be capable of ​anything.

In fact, Towne’s screenplay, when examined on a molecular level, is richly imbued with building blocks of life. My microanalysis of the first hundred pages finds each individual page a structural unit of moving parts and fecund storytelling ingredients.

One can extract the following newly formed foundational elements from any given page: An Action taken by the character, a Dilemma or conflict (be it on a macro or micro scale), a Revelation or discovery of new information, an enforcement of a principal’s Ethics or moral code, an inference of Motive, and a definition of Stakes. Some samples:

On page 72, the tail-end of a scene between Gittes and his new client Noah Cross is bookended by Gittes’ shrewd parting remark that ​“I’ll look into ​[finding the girl]​–as soon as I check out some avocado groves.” ​Polansky’s film, of course, made them ​orange g​roves, but we can deduce Gittes’ strategy here: To corroborate either Yelburton’s claim that the drainage Gittes had found was natural “runoff” from the DWP’s generous decision to “irrigate avocado and walnut groves in the northwest valley,” ​or​ a sneaking suspicion that DWP had been deliberately draining the Owens valley. This is likely a veiled body language or tonal survey of Cross’s nervous reaction: ​“Avocado groves?” T​his is the ​Revelation,​ if not a ​foreshadow​ of a coming revelation.

An inch and a half down the page, Gittes has us in the Hall of Records, where he interfaces with an officious clerk. We have enough overarching conflict to carry us through the page, but that wasn’t enough for Towne; he embeds an immediate, subtextual conflict into the subplot of the scene itself–that between two idiosyncratically repelling personalities.

Through this, he reinforces an established statute of Gittes’ ethical constitution: His aversion to bureaucracy–in ​all​ shapes and sizes. (We saw this impatience for bureaucracy in Yelburton’s front office, where Gittes trolls the secretary’s patience to the point that she is willing to defy her boss’s orders just to get Gittes out of her hair. Two years after ​Dirty Harry, ​this was fast becoming a common trait of the vigilante archetype.)

The ​Action ​here is to find the deeds of sale for northwest valley land. The ​Motive​ here is consistent with the preceding pages–to find the truth. Now this is a public resource; it’s gatherable that Gitties is a taxpaying resident of Los Angeles County, but just to fend off any meddling from the clerk–having baselined his personality, Gittes takes on a mild undercover persona to understate his curiosity.

The ​Revelation​ of course, is in the next page–the extremely recent sales of the land. Gittes asks if he “check one of these volumes out,” to which the stickler retorts, “Sir, this is not a lending library, it’s the Hall of Records.” (Gittes vs. Clerk) Gittes’ ​action ​is to borrow a ruler because “I forgot my glasses, I’d like to be able to read across.”

Gittes then uses the ruler to swiftly rip the page out of the volume, muffling the noise with an emphatic cough. He fends off the ​Stakes​ of the clerk catching him defacing public property (which are implicitly heightened by the clerk’s stickler personality), and in so doing espouses an Ethical statute: Willingness to circumvent petty rules in a quest to ultimately expose high lawbreakers.

In what a lesser film would treat as a forgettably functional, utilitarian scene in service of the next story beat, Towne infuses with situational humor, interpersonal politics, colorful character beats and mundane yet identifiable and immediately relatable stakes–on top of a stirring cornerstone revelation.

These are a couple samplings of 128 pages. Each unit of this film is its own tide pool of organic activity, with its own undercurrent of momentary subplots, formed on a rocky intertidal ​shore against a raging ocean of high-stakes intrigue. As Cross later paraphrases what Hollis used to say about tide pools: “That’s where life begins.”

In keeping with the absence of dramatic irony, we only know as much at a time as what Gittes knows. The only informational advantage Gittes seems to have on us is his past–and whatever the hell happened in Chinatown before we met him. We know only a little about the eponym of the film, which, like with ​Fargo,​ we spend only one scene in at the conclusion.

When Cross’s cautions him on page 96, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with — but believe me, you don’t,” this “stops Gittes”; “he seems faintly mused by it.” He explains why: “It’s what the D.A. used to tell me about Chinatown.” When Cross asks him, “Was he right?” Gittes “shrugs.”

When Evelyn inquires about it (pp.89-90) we learn that he was “working for the District Attorney,” trying to do “as little as possible.” Whatever bothers him “bothers everybody who works there — but to me — It was –”…Gittes brushes close to oversharing his evidently ​unique level of disgust and–by extension–moral or empathic sensibility.

He explains, in what only a repeat viewer would know is a prophetic: ​“I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure they were hurt.” ​While the film on first viewing, as noted, offers little to no dramatic irony, it is upon repeat viewings as thick with dramatic ironies as any Hitchcock film–and more so with each viewing. Like no other film, Chinatown​ is a different one upon each viewing. One is almost ​always​ seeing ​Chinatown​ for the first time. The most doggedly un-recidivistic moviegoer is behooved to agree.

By the end of the film, we ​still​ don’t know the details of what happened in Chinatown before it all started. But we come to understand that we know–and have known–all we need to. His associate pleads: ​“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” ​But Jake has wanted to forget Chinatown for as long as we’ve known him. Before any of this happened; before he fell in love with Mrs. Mulwray, let alone met Mrs. Mulwray, or for that matter met “Mrs. Mulwray.”

Our meagerly rationed knowledge of Jake’s past experience in Chinatown is not some form of gimmickry. Towne does not burden us with cheap, harrowing flashbacks, overwritten backstories or formulaic moment-of-truth confessions. There is no epiloguic ​“Ah-ha!” ​or winking insertion of a final missing puzzle piece, nor do we walk out craving one.

If we need any detailed explanation of what happened before, we’ve already been given as detailed an analogy in what we just ​saw​ happen: He​ tried to keep someone from being hurt (​ by getting Evelyn and Catherine out of Dodge), and ended up ​making sure they were hurt ​(by having already called Escobar–the right thing to do based on what he knew and thought ​at the time​). The 2500-year-old Solomonic refrain applies: “​That which is crooked cannot be made straight; That which hath been is that which shall be; that which has been done is that which shall be done, and there is nothing new under the sun”​–especially not in Chinatown.

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