Robert McKee introduces Chinatown

From the Filmworks season, broadcast 2nd April 1994

Chinatown began as a screenplay by Robert Town based on true stories his father told him about a scandal involving the water supply to the city of Los Angeles.

The script took years to write as Town did tremendous research, not only into the original chicanery and how it worked, but into the world of the private eye and the tricks of that trade. 

After many drafts and experiments, he finally decided to structure the film around a closed mystery who done it with more sex and politics than Agatha Christie, certainly, but with the ending sheet approve. At the climax of Town screenplay, detective J J Gettis nails the murderer and all live happily ever after. 

Paramount Pictures, took an interest and showed the script to Rowan Polanski who was also intrigued, but he had one big problem. He didn’t believe the ending. He couldn’t buy the idea that a two bit private eye could win out against such enormous political power

He agreed to direct only if the script was greatly rewritten, starting with changing the ending from happy to tragic. When they got Robert Town down from the ceiling, he desperate for a sale, agreed to collaborate.

Now Polanski himself, a writer of no small talent who’s written or co written all the films he’s directed by reworking Chinatown, a well done, but conventional thriller, he lifted it from good to great making a radical convention, breaking film that found popular and critical success and the undying affection of people who love film.

Now, what seems to be the problem My husband, I believe is seeing another woman. No really I’m afraid show. I am sorry

Until Chinatown, the ironclad convention of all murder mystery was that the detective identifies apprehends and punishes the killer. But Polanski shattered that convention paving the way for many fine films. Then in a gentlemanly gesture, he took no screen writing credit on the film that established Robert Town’s career. 

Of course, to this day, Town will tell you Polanski ruined his screenplay, but a simple comparison of Town’s version to the shooting script and it’s clear that virtually everything that makes Chinatown a work of art is Polanski.

Chinatown is set not at the turn of the century when the actual scam took place, but in the thirties, for many reasons, terrific looking clothes, hairstyles, automobiles, it’s hard for a private detective to make a quick getaway by jumping on the running board of a horse drawn carriage. On the other hand, the great depression goes unnoticed. 

Now, Chinatown isn’t history. It’s an anachronism in commercial filmmaking. There’s only one valid reason for setting a film in the past and thereby adding at least 25% of the production budget. And that’s to use the past as a clear glass, through which to see the present.

In the seventies, the United States was embroiled in the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and as America woke up from the nightmare of just how corrupt a society it was, the time was right for Chinatown.

When you get so much publicity, you gotta get blahzay about it. Let’s face it. Jake. You’re practically a movie star. 

Some critics called the Chinatown film noir, but it’s not.  

The heart of film-noir is a femme fatale who inspires a tragic vulnerability in the tough guy protagonist, but Faye Dunaway’s mrs. Moire is a poignant tragic figure herself. Film Noir is concerned with fringe characters and losers. Here, we have the rich or people working for the rich. Film noir lighting is hard, angular expressionistic. Here. the lighting is rich, almost romantic, which you’ll see in its original cinema scope form.

How much would you like I’ll stop at the money’s fine. It’s generous. Thank you. Shortchange me on the story.

And the one thing the film the private eye would never do where those cynical gumshoes drew the line, they would not take matrimonial cases, meaning adultery. In Chinatown, JJ Geddes boasts that adultery, as he mispronounces the French, his meata.

Now, if Polanski owes a debt, it’s not to film-noir, but Hitchcock. 

Like the great master, Polanski’s taken a well-worn genre and made something both beautiful and meaningful, a film that sets itself apart, uniquely from all other mystery, thrillers, a film that is not only story, but poetry and like any fine novel or play a film becomes poetic by incorporating into itself an image system. 

This poetic system must be more than subtle, it must be subliminal. The audience is not to notice. The moment the audience reacts to an image as symbolic, the effect is destroyed. 

And I’m about to do just that by pointing out the Chinatown has not one but four such poetic systems that wive throughout the film, enriching everything. 

The first is motifs of water versus drought. And so you’ll see and hear constant illusions to drowning, to fish, drinking, beaches, lakes, reservoirs, steam irons, spit, the city’s department of water and power. In this film water is power and in the hands of a man named Noah.

You may think, you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t. Why is that funny? That’s what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.


The second system is sexual cruelty. There’s only one instance of loving sexuality in the film, all the rest cause suffering, adultery, castration, sadism, incest, and horses. A lot of horses, the universal symbol of sexually rationality.

Did you talk to him this morning No. I went riding. We had the early looks like you went quite a distance riding, go back

The third blindness or seeing falsely photographs, cameras, windows, rear view mirrors, broken eyeglasses, binocular, sunglasses, and eyes, especially the eyes of the dead.

Jake, what are you doing here? Nothing. Marty, It’s my lunch hour. I thought I’d drop by and see who dropped dead lately. There’s a new something. Middle of a drunk. The water commissioner droughts only in LA.

Film’s title, Chinatown has always intrigued audiences. It’s the key to the fourth image system, political corruption as social cement, the wonderfully ironic notion that political corruption is actually the glue that holds society together.

I want to find out who puts you up to it. I’ll give you a few days to think about it. Call me I can help. Who knows Maybe we can put the whole thing off on a few big shots in that you can stay the head of the department for the next 20 years.

In many of America’s major cities, there’s a Chinatown. And traditionally the police of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have taken a singular attitude toward their Chinatowns, which is to allow crime to exist unimpeded so long as it doesn’t spread outside that district and contaminate the rest of the city.

In this film, Chinatown becomes a state of mind, a symbol for the whole of American society, a place where crime is allowed to exist. And so you’ll see lots of oriental characters. In the love scene. Faye Dunaway has given a very Chinese makeup. The film makes constant illusions to phony contracts, bribery, corruption. Not a single scene goes by that doesn’t refrain on these four poetic schemes.

Tell me you still put in China man in jail for spitting in the laundry? You’re a little behind the times Jake, but he was steam mind now. And I’m out of Chinatown. Since when? Since I made a Lieutenant. Congratulations.

I can’t help, but think that when this film was written, the world’s oldest detective story Oedipus Rex was not far from mind. Both stories are set in cities, suffering from drought.

Both protagonists believe they’re working for the public good and the future, when in fact they’re driven by private unconscious desires, rooted in a dark past.

Both stories involve incest and the murder of father figures.

The fatal flaw of both heroes is excessive pride. Both assume that the crime was committed for conventional reasons, greed power, but then discover the irrational evil for its own blind sake.
I don’t blame myself. 

See, mr. Getis, most people never have to face the fact that it’s the right time, the right place they’re capable of anything

This it seems to me is the key to the meaning of Chinatown. 

What fascinates Polanski is the location of evil. 

And he is a man well acquainted with such. 

As a child, he was a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, a madman butchered his wife and unborn child, his own sexuality.

Through the story he tells in his brilliant imagery, particularly seeing falsely. 

Polanski expresses the idea that if you are looking for the source of evil out there in the society, you’re looking in the wrong direction. It’s here inside ourselves. The evil in society is simply a symptom of our own human nature.

And how true it is. We pour beings are both angel and devil. On Monday. We build Salisbury cathedral on Tuesday, Auschwitz.And from day to day, God help us, we never know which we’re going to get.