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The men who made ‘Chinatown’ unforgettable

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in 1974’s “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Of all the groundbreaking movies made during the brief burst of creativity and originality known collectively as the New Hollywood, none is more memorable than Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” released in 1974.

An existential detective story bathed in shades of film noir, “Chinatown” is more of a who-are-we than a whodunit. Besides Polanski’s masterful direction, it boasts one of the most admired screenplays in movie history, by Robert Towne; a fabulously nuanced star performance by Jack Nicholson; and a grand theme: the fatal fragility of good intentions in an evil world. It’s also wickedly entertaining. The only mystery is why no one’s tackled it in a full-length book before.

Now comes Sam Wasson, a veteran writer of Hollywood tales with a novelist’s eye for complex characters and a natural storyteller’s feel for scenes, dialogue and richly revealing details.

Wasson grounds his account in the intriguing people who made “Chinatown”: Polanski, Towne, Nicholson and the mercurial Robert Evans, who oversaw the making of the movie while head of production for Paramount. Using these four gifted and complicated men at the zenith of their talents and their egos, Wasson, in “The Big Goodbye,” weaves a tale in a voice that is intimate and sympathetic, yet critical.

The making of “Chinatown” begins with Towne, who before 1973 was mostly known for his brilliant rewrites of “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and the resonant climactic scene of “The Godfather” (1972). But he hit his peak with “The Last Detail” (1973) and “Chinatown,” both of which were written for Nicholson, his best friend and former roommate from the corn-flakes-for-dinner days when both men were starving young actors struggling for a foothold in the old studio system.

Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective specializing in divorce cases in late 1930s Los Angeles. But his latest case spirals out of control when his aggrieved client, a society woman named Evelyn Mulwray, turns out to be an impostor and her supposedly cheating husband winds up dead. Gittes finds himself a pawn in a conspiracy of powerful interests who are buying up cheap land in the arid San Fernando Valley and then illegally diverting public water to irrigate it and multiply its value. Aided by the real Mrs. Mulwray, he discovers that the corruption extends far beyond public money and water and threatens her life and that of her daughter.

Towne’s original screenplay was literate, finely detailed, and full of unexpected twists and turns. His characters were three-dimensional — “based on life,” as he once put it, “not other movies.”

But for all its genius, the script was also confusing and over-plotted, and lacked a coherent ending. Evans recruited Polanski, who ruthlessly supervised Towne’s rewrite. Polanski also insisted on a darker, more appropriately brutal conclusion.

Polanski was a brilliant filmmaker but a spiritually maimed human being. Raised in prewar Poland, his pregnant mother murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz, Polanski found his trauma compounded 25 years later when his beautiful wife, actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, was slaughtered in their Beverly Hills home along with four others by followers of Charles Manson. “The certainty of loss had corrupted his every longing, and his resultant sadness summoned up the worst in him,” Wasson writes.

Polanski not only helped fix the screenplay, he brought a deliberate and melancholy sensibility to the making of the movie. “Filming took time, not because he didn’t know what he wanted, but because he did,” writes Wasson. And he coaxed great performances from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and veteran film director John Huston.

Nicholson, perhaps the finest actor of his generation, ranges from crudely comical to intensely tragic. Gittes’s self-assurance and cynicism are a front for a deeply vulnerable man with an instinctive code of honor. Dunaway at first seems like a classic femme fatale but emerges as a damsel who desperately needs rescuing. In the end Gittes only abets her demise.

On the set Nicholson was easy to work with and endlessly patient, just so long as he could leave in time to catch his beloved L.A. Lakers. He was one of the few leading men who could wear a bandage over his nose for most of a movie and still seem sexy and tough. Huston was chilling as the sinister plutocrat behind the land swindle, who has the movie’s most darkly revealing line: “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 anything.”

Evans, who died in October at age 89, was a seductive-voiced, seven-times-married swashbuckler who presided over some of the most successful films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Love Story” (1970) and “The Godfather.” Perhaps his most crucial contribution to “Chinatown” was commissioning a resonant, trumpet-crowned musical theme from composer Jerry Goldsmith reflecting “the ache, the longing, dying but sweetly pleading, love a happy memory drowning in truth.”

Poetic lines like those constantly blossom throughout Wasson’s narrative, adding beauty and charm, though his prose occasionally overheats.

He doesn’t shy away from nailing his characters’ fatal flaws and flagging trajectories. Polanski’s twisted, sadomasochistic libido eventually led him to rape a 13-year-old girl, causing him to flee the United States — a crime whose horror he has never fully acknowledged. Towne and Evans both fell victim to cocaine addiction and their own supreme arrogance. Only Nicholson remained relatively unscathed. He has been nominated for Academy Awards 12 times as an actor and won three.

Finally, there’s the sad trajectory of Hollywood itself. One year after “Chinatown,” the stunning success of “Jaws,” an action thriller, ushered in a wave of high-concept blockbusters including “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Marvel Comics era — what Wasson calls “the cinema of sensation.” That same year saw the birth of Creative Artists, the high-powered talent agency that packaged actors, directors, scripts and mega-salaries and shifted Hollywood’s creative energy from filmmaking to dealmaking. Wasson’s book is an utterly stylish and entertaining ode to a bygone era and the gifted but troubled people who made it memorable.

Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

By Sam Wasson

Flatiron. 382 pp. $28