A Comparison of Chinatown: Script and Screenplay
Whilst the world of Chinatown is a filthy pool of bitter desperation and questionable morality in both the script created by Robert Townes and the film made by Roman Polanski, the versions show noticeable differences due to the altering of mediums. Nicholson builds a significantly more detailed character than is seen on the page by applying a myriad of mannerisms and varying tones. It is through this that Gittes is transformed from a cynical, indifferent private eye to a more complex combination of seedy corruption, surface charm and a desire to uncover the shady underside of 1937 Los Angeles while simultaneously being successful and gaining credibility. Another way in which the character of Gittes is enhanced in the film is through the usage of costuming. The colouring of Gittes’ suits and the accessories that accompany them emphasise certain traits including his constantly wavering morality and the cool collectiveness that he attempts to portray.The constantly differing but always muted colouring of Gittes’ attire acts as a measurement of his varying levels of corruption and provides a visual representation of his fragmented personality. The shades of grey, white and black that dominate his costuming suggests the many facets of Gittes that exist but also indicate that they must exist within a world that is hopelessly grim despite the harsh, glaring light that penetrates the city. At the film’s opening Gittes suit is a creamy white as opposed to the scripts directions for a “white linen suit”. Through this subtle altering in colour Polanski suggests both Gittes and L.A. are on a superficial level pure and charming while implying from the films outset that corruption is seeping through to every to corner of the city, even to those who are fundamentally decent. He is wearing this same suit whilst meeting the fake Mrs. Mulray, demonstrating his relatively sound intentions at this point as he simply attempts to make a living, but when meeting the real Mrs. Mulray his jacket has been removed foreshadowing that her presence in his life will cause him to become significantly more vulnerable and exposed. After several developments in the Mulray case Gittes meets Mrs. Mulray for dinner in an attempt to extract information about her family from her. His suit is near black in colouring and his tie a dark navy despite the script failing to mention what Gittes’ costume should be composed of at this point. The director’s choice of colouring allows it to be implied that between these two meetings Gittes has crossed the line from helpful to sordid, and that this is the point where he becomes swamped with the filth that has surrounded him from the beginning.In between these two points of the film Gittes suits are varying shades of grey. In the scene where he watches Mulray oppose the plan for the proposed dam, the script simply states that he is “impeccably dressed”. In other scenes where his costuming is grey his outfit is sometimes not mentioned at all. By choosing grey as the central theme for costuming in this area of the text the battle between Gittes desire to assist in solving L.A.’s problems and his self interested desire to become wealthy and esteemed can be presented in an effective visual manner allowing the audience to see at what point the influences around him overwhelm his sense of decency. For example, in the court scene previously mentioned Gittes’ suits shade is a lighter grey with a lighter still checkered pattern, suggesting at this point he is appreciative of Mr. Mulray’s refusal to “make the same mistake twice” and that he is purely carrying out his job without the presence of a selfish motive. When at the coroner’s office with Mrs. Mulray his suit is a far darker grey, perhaps indicating that his interest in her is swaying towards the inappropriate and his fascination with the case has gone farther than what his job requires and has become a bitter personal battle. Later on in the film, when he visits Noah Cross, his suit has significantly lightened in colour, consisting of a beige jacket and white pants. He is still wearing this outfit when he goes to investigate the orange groves and warn them of the proposed plan. The script’s only costuming advice for this section is once again for Gittes to be “impeccably dressed”. The suggestions for Noah Cross’s costume are far more specific and detailed, indicating Townes did not see Gittes’ costuming as an important aspect of the scene. By dressing Gittes in a meaningful manner as Polanski has done, it can be seen that his intentions are once more altruistic as he assists Mrs. Mulray in stopping her malicious father and attempts to stop the devious water owners from making money from the less fortunate. Interestingly, this is the first point in the film that his jacket and pants are differing in colour, perhaps suggesting that while Gittes has remembered his good intentions he is not entirely exempt from the poison penetrating L.A. It also foreshadows that the darkness will soon permeate both his outfit and life. Inevitably, it does, and when Gittes receives a call summoning him to the death of Ida Sessions he is dressed in deep red pajamas, a colour that can represent both danger and death, and as Gittes enters the crime scene of Mrs. Sessions in a dark grey suit he begins a flurry of encounters with both of the above. Now only his handkerchief is white showing how little of his purity remains and his tie is a bright red indicating that the perils of the next twenty four hours are only just beginning. The accessories worn by Gittes in the film play an important role, and despite the fact his ties fail to be mentioned in the script the large number worn, all adorned with indistinguishable circular patterns, are essential in reminding viewers of the blurred lines between what is considered acceptable and what is not in the deeply fractured L.A. This accessory was soon overtaken, however, when Gittes nose was cut and his face then dominated for a large portion of the film by a nose bandage. The script calls for “a bandage spread eagled across Gittes nose”, which simply does not have as powerful effect as the bulky, misshapen lump taking up the majority of Nicholsons face. It is piercingly white in colour, made even more so by the glaring sunlight, acting as a constant reminder that Gittes possesses a higher level of integrity than many of his vapid counterparts. It begins off obscuring his entire nose but when he has drinks with Mrs. Mulray it has moved to the side, exposing its left side. This implies that he is slowly losing the decency he initially possessed and also that he is once again making himself more susceptible to danger by delving deeper into the complex Mulray case. It then becomes blood stained as he fights several men at the orange groves, indicating the rapidly increasing danger of the situation and the disintegrating state of Gittes morals. When he sleeps with Mrs. Mulray it has been removed altogether, indicating that he has most certainly relented to the increasingly insipid world of L.A.’s wealthy. Nicholson does not ‘shove’ the shot glass towards Curly in Scene One but rather places it down definitively, portraying Gittes over confidence in his ability as a private investigator and the lesser movement of the glass perhaps reflecting the characters narrow vision of what is going on around him later in the film. In the very first shot of Gittes he is sprawled casually across the seat, oozing both nonchalance and disinterest as Nicholson displays the aloof façade that Gittes attempts to present to those around him. His legs are also crossed at this point, immediately establishing Gittes’ reserved nature and desire to remain detached from his clients on a personal level. He is clear and definitive in his movements but they are also fairly restricted and are never below mid range, perhaps indicating that while Gittes has penetrated the upper class he remains restricted by the compromised, decaying world that they reside in. After Gittes’ line “…and you’re right” the film cuts to when Curly is pleading with Gittes to ease off on the payment for his services. By cutting out Gittes’ rant about wealthy Americans and the death penalty, the characters façade of disinterest can be maintained throughout the entire first scene and revealed in a more progressive way in the rest of the film. Then, as the script is picked up once again and Gittes says “forget it, Curly” he pats Curly on the shoulder and back as opposed to the directions in the script which suggest he “throws an arm around Curly” as he says “I don’t want your last dime”. A pat is far more definite than a thrown arm emphasising Gittes arrogance further and by changing the location of the touch Nicholson takes the focus away slightly from money, suggesting that his character has some care for others and is not to be affiliated completely with the corrupt upper class. His voice has a distinctive huskiness as he addresses Curly, its tainted purity resonating with the toxicity of the once noble ideal of the American dream, that anyone could make an honest living if they worked hard enough. Gittes traded his respectable career as a policeman for the more low-brow practice of exposing cheating lovers, foreshadowing that he is not distanced enough from the outside world to properly observe or change it. Despite this, there is no doubt he is eloquent and smooth in his interactions, as demonstrated by his clear dictation even when his mouth movements are restricted by a cigarette. His tone remains notably dry and emotionless throughout the course of the first scene and his register consistently low, demonstrating the world weary nature of Gittes and his cynicism in the ideals of love that are rapidly crumbling before Curly’s eyes.Chinatown undergoes an array of notable transformations as it is moved from script form to the screen. Nicholson’s acting accompanies costuming and a wide range of other filmic elements in creating a vivid, engaging screenplay unable to be entirely reflected in the script upon which it was based.
Chinatown: Polanski’s Definitive Noir Critique
Film noir frequently explores the extremes of the American character, illuminating its dark and treacherous capabilities but also its capacity for decency and truth. Although many critics agree that the quintessential period for noirs occurred during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown re-invokes the tradition, functioning “both as a homage to and a critique of classic noirs” (Graydon 41). Like Raymond Chandler before him, Polanski utilizes the rapidly expanding Los Angeles climate to play out his vision of the ultimate noir: by employing the tradition of the justice-seeking detective who must navigate through the corrupt city and past the femme fatale’s dishonest advances, Polanski highlights the brutality of noir while still providing a modern take on the classic genre.Like so many of the 1940’s and 1950’s film noirs which were set in either Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, Chinatown takes place in L.A. in 1937. The city of Los Angeles itself has been an integral component of the genre, especially to the works of Chandler whose detective Phillip Marlowe can often be found on the hunt throughout various parts of the town (Hausladen 49). The urban sprawl has even been described as a “labyrinth” by author Nicholas Christopher, and as a “key to entering the psychological and aesthetic framework of the film noir” (Hausladen 48). Polanski takes these concepts to the extreme in Chinatown as his protagonist Jake Gittes is in both a psychological and a physical maze during his investigation of Hollis Mulwray’s death. After Mr. Mulwray’s death, Gittes does some night sleuthing down by the city’s reservoirs, hopping a chain link fence and searching the inside premises for clues. Polanski’s camera captures Gittes’ face behind the fence multiple times during this scene, as the images suggest that the detective’s sights and abilities are somewhat limited due to the vast and bare landscape. As Gittes walks through the empty reservoir, his character is often isolated on frame along with the long open channels which appear to be a physical maze—these channels only lead him to more twists and turns, just before they suddenly fill with water to baffle Gittes as he investigates the homicide cases of the victims who have ironically drowned in the middle of a desert drought. The city of L.A. has not only been transformed into both a figurative and literal labyrinth by Polanski, but also “a city and culture marked by ambiguity, trying to find its identity” (Hausladen 49). The concept of uncertainty is a significant one to Chinatown, as both the detective and the audience often find themselves disoriented throughout the narrative. The history of L.A., its lack of an identity, and the sense of a lingering ‘past’ all combine within the film to contaminate the characters (Cordaiy 121). The Sydney-based author Hunter Cordaiy explains that “this sense of ‘past’ is essential to all noir stories (one of the most famous examples is Out of the Past [Jacques Tourner, 1947])” (121). In Polanski’s Chinatown, the past is an invisible, yet felt presence throughout the film: Gittes has had a past incident in L.A.’s Chinatown, and although Evelyn Mulwray inquires as to whether or not a woman Gittes had once loved died there, the absolute truth is never revealed to either her or the audience; Evelyn herself has a horrifying past which she can not escape, being raped by her father Noah Cross at 14 and giving birth to his child which she now must hide and protect; Evelyn’s father Noah Cross and the murdered Hollis Mulwray were once joint owners of the water and electric supply of L.A., and their past connections and history are the driving forces for Gittes’ investigation. With all of Chinatown’s central figures, “there is a sense that no character will ever ‘escape’ their history or what the city has done to them (Cordaiy 121).While Polanski invokes the tradition of the Los Angeles setting and the ‘sense of past’ to pay homage to the classic noirs, he also primarily does so by having his story revolve around a detective. The screenwriter Robert Towne, who collaborated with Polanski for the script, even admitted that he began the writing process “with the Philip Marlowe prototype…a tarnished knight” (Hausladen 57). But unlike Marlowe and the other detectives of the 1940’s and 1950’s who nearly always appeared to be one-step ahead of the villains while simultaneously being in control of all peripheral situations, Gittes is oblivious to many of his surroundings and the connections between people and events—“thus, it is a restrained characterization of the old Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe tradition” (Gehring 19). Although Gittes both lives alone and was a past member of the police force like most noir detectives, his character’s abilities to perceive danger and to fend-off those violent threats appear to be significantly weaker than the typical noir detective. In a scene where Polanski makes his cameo, Gittes is apprehended by Polanski’s character “Man with Knife” and another henchman. Unlike the classic detective who would either overcome the villain’s goons or take the beating (but bare no physical scars afterwards), Polanski’s “Man with Knife” gruesomely slices a giant slit in Gittes’ left nostril, leaving him vulnerable and bleeding profusely. Throughout the next half of the film, Gittes is forced to sport an over-sized white bandage on his face, now becoming the butt of the jokes rather than displaying the detectives’ normal quick-witted charm. Not only does Gittes appear physically weak while wearing the white bandage, but Polanski also strips the detective of his physically masculine and dominate attributes all together. The classical noir detectives dress in scruffy clothing and live in small apartments that represent their independence from both the society and the law (Cordaiy 120); they also tend to have little money and are forced to either exploit clients or take any type of case to secure some capital. Gittes is depicted as exploiting his clients when he sells photos of the supposedly cheating Hollis Mulwray to the local papers, yet “(he) is immaculately dressed and has a detective agency with a secretary and two operatives” (Cordaiy 120). Instead of appearing tough and independent, Gittes appears sleek, refined, and dependent on his co-workers as he tells Ida Sessions, (the impersonating Evelyn Mulwray), that he is unable to hear her case privately or without the help of his two associates. While Chinatown destroys the notion of the omniscient detective (Cordaiy 122), it also re-imagines and recasts the role of the femme fatale. The typical femme fatales appear to be figures of pure malevolence—lying, cheating, and killing their way to the top in pursuit of a position of wealth and power. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is perhaps the classic example, but Polanski’s femme fatale is hardly comparable to her in any light. The actions of the classic femme fatale are often prompted by a painful past or an unhealthy relationship with an abusive lover—(Kathie Moffat’s relationship with Whit Sterling in Out of the Past is a prime illustration of this); conceivably, an agonizing past is one of the only things that Polanski’s Evelyn Mulwray has in common with these femmes. Polanski again takes a noir concept to the extreme, using the painful past of the incestuous rape perpetrated by Evelyn’s father to motivate her actions. Not only have these past experiences instilled psychological damage within Evelyn like so many of the other classic femme fatales, but it has also produced a tangible manifestation of this pain—a child that is both Evelyn’s daughter and sister. Polanski’s film sticks to the tradition of the detective becoming romantically and sexually involved with the femme fatale, but unlike the convention, Evelyn Mulwray does not use the detective’s sexual lust or desires against him. While Phyllis Dietrichson uses sex to seduce and persuade Walter Neff into killing her husband in Double Indemnity, Evelyn Mulwray’s character actually likes Gittes, seeing him as an unfortunate bystander caught-up in her tragic story. Evelyn’s past prompts her to conceal the truth from Gittes, but through her perspective, she sees this as doing him a favor, saying: “You think you know what you’re dealing with, Mr. Gittes, but you don’t.” Although the detective Gittes is involved in a plot way beyond his recognition, he still pursues in attempting to aid the psychologically wounded Evelyn who functions both as Chinatown’s femme fatale and good girl. In classic noir, the femme fatale must be either apprehended or eliminated, while the good girl must be protected in order to restore balance at the end of the film; but seeing as Evelyn functions as both the femme fatale and the good girl who Gittes attempts to help rescue from her psychotic father, the choice must be made by the story’s conclusion as to whether she will escape or not. The original draft of the script had Evelyn getting away, but Polanski saw to it that it was revised with Evelyn’s tragic death, which he felt would illuminate the depravity of human behavior, commenting: “When people leave the theatre, they shouldn’t be allowed to think that everything is all right with the world. It isn’t—and very little in life has a nice ending” (Gehring 19). Although the good girl and the detective do not escape from the struggle in Chinatown alive or physically and psychologically unscathed, the piece as a whole can be seen as an homage to the classic noirs of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Polanski embraces the form and elements of the noir narrative, from the characters to the landscape on which the drama unfolds, yet he does so under his own terms. Chinatown is filled with ambiguity from the very beginning to the final words of the film, and Polanski re-envisions the classic noir genre without taking anything from it. Instead of the viewer watching the omniscient detective navigate through the corrupted culture and landscape, it is instead “the audience who must find a way through the maze of plot and deception in order to arrive at the truth” (Cordaiy 120). Works CitedCordaiy, Hunter “through a lens, darkly: teaching CHINATOWN.” Screen Education 54 (2009): 119-124. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.Gehring, Wes D. “Cinema’s Dark Side.” USA Today Magazine Nov. 2007: 19. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.Graydon, Danny. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2007. Print.Hausladen, Gary J., and Paul F. Starrs “L.A. Noir.” Journal of Cultural Geography 23.1 (2005): 43-69. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.