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5 Things You Might Not Know About Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown'

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 20, 2012 12:00 PM
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Is there such a thing as a perfect film? Perhaps. You could certainly argue that personal taste plays into the question of perfection too much -- one man's triumph is another's disaster. And even so, there are so many possible things that can go wrong with a film -- one duff performance, one ill-conceived shot, one poorly-written scene -- that it's almost an impossible task. But dammit if we don't consider "Chinatown" to be as close as you can get to being perfect.

Starting with a devilishly complex, yet brilliantly simple script from Robert Towne, still one of the finest ever written, it displays top class at every level, from Roman Polanski directing at his peak (in his last American film), to ace performances from Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston, to Jerry Goldsmith's all-time-great score. It's hard to ask for much more from a film. "Chinatown" was released 38 years ago today on June 20, 1974, and to mark the occasion we've assembled five key facts that even big fans of the film might not be aware of.

Chinatown Faye Dunaway
1. The part of Evelyn Mulwray was written with Jane Fonda in mind.
After his uncredited work on "Bonnie & Clyde" and on the Yul Brynner western "Villa Rides," producer Robert Evans approached screenwriter Robert Towne with a $175,000 offer to pen an adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" for Paramount. Towne turned it down, worried he wouldn't do justice to Fitzgerald's novel (Francis Ford Coppola took the job instead), but offered to write an original screenplay for a much smaller fee. Evans accepted, and Towne, inspired by a conversation with a cop friend, set about writing the script that became "Chinatown," intending from the start for Jack Nicholson to play P.I. Jake Gittes, and Jane Fonda to play the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray. But when Evans read the script, he decided it would be the perfect vehicle for his wife, "Love Story" star Ali MacGraw, who he also wanted to play Daisy in 'Gatsby' at the time. But her affair with Steve McQueen on the set of "The Getaway" and subsequent divorce from Evans put paid to that ever being a possibility. Roman Polanski, meanwhile, who'd been hired by Evans to bring a European sensibility to the film (but possibly only after Peter Bogdanavich turned the job down), favored Julie Christie, a friend of his late wife Sharon Tate. Faye Dunaway was later hired as a compromise, although some would come to regret it: Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" contains a possibly apocryphal story of her flinging a cup of piss in the director's face.

2. Three DoPs worked on the film at one stage or another.
Polanski had been keen to reunite with his "Rosemary's Baby" DoP William A. Fraker, but Evans worried that Polanski would have too much control over the film if that was the case, and he fired Fraker and replaced him with veteran Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificent Ambersons," "Night Of The Hunter," "The Naked Kiss"). But Polanski found his work too classical for the naturalistic approach he was trying to take, and Cortez too was fired after a few days, with John A. Alonzo ("Vanishing Point," "Harold & Maude") stepping in and doing memorable work. But according to Robert Towne, on the DVD commentary in collaboration with David Fincher -- who considers the film one of the greatest ever made -- some of Cortez's work does survive in the final cut in the shape of the orange grove fight and the sunset drive back to L.A.

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  • Gorgiana Alonzo | July 27, 2012 5:52 PMReply

    Mr. Lyttelton, you might find the following of interest. I'm the eldest daughter of John Alonzo and was a first-semester college student at the time of Chinatown. Dad's copy of the script is dated October 9, 1973 and the ending is like the movie, although there are a few changes (where Mr. Cross stands in relation to Evelyn's body, for instance). The script I have says THIRD DRAFT.

    As for Dad being the 3rd D.P., I happened to be home from class when Dad got the call about Chinatown. He was shocked that he was going to replace Stanley Cortez, as you say, a Hollywood veteran. A few days into production, Dad said at dinner that only a few shots had been completed, all exteriors. Dad had nothing but admiration for all of the cinematographers from the "old school," how they did everything. I often watched the shoot on set or on location and drove him to many places in LA. It's interesting to me that all these years after Chinatown was made, there are still things to learn about it.

  • Mike White | June 24, 2012 8:57 PMReply

    You mean *John* Huston, not his father, Walter.

  • Chuck | June 20, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    Chinatown is one of my favorite films of all time. I very highly cherish my CD soundrack of the score that is now out of print.

    I have a copy of the Two Jakes and like most of it, but wished it was more of something that its not. I do love his office though....

    Would love to see the supposed third film just for kicks....... Jack would probably be the age Jake would be in 1968 right about now.

  • question | June 20, 2012 4:05 PMReply

    what does "put paid" mean?

  • Question | June 20, 2012 5:02 PM

    hey thanks for making sure you included sarcasm with your answer, james! otherwise how would i know which one of us is the superior human being?

  • James | June 20, 2012 4:29 PM

    There's this amazing thing called Google... It means to finish something off, to end its chances.

  • Michael Chase Walker | June 20, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Kudos guys, great frickin' article!

  • Tam | June 20, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    It's JOHN Huston, not Walter.

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