Chinatown (1974) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Chinatown is now considered one of the top films in history. As I write this, it is rated #48 of all time at IMDb, with an astronomical rating of 8.4. It was also popular and respected when it was released in 1974, but it was an also-ran that year.
  • It was nominated for eleven Oscars, including all the major ones (Actor, Actress, Editor, Cinematograper, Director, Screenplay, Original Score, Best Picture), but it won only for the Original Screenplay. In most years, Chinatown would have done far better at award time, but it ran up against a juggernaut. It had the poor fortune to come out the same year as The Godfather Part 2, which is a legitimate contender for the honor of being named the greatest film ever made, and is currently rated #4 of all time at IMDb. Godfather Two was also nominated for eleven Oscars, winning six to Chinatown's one.
  • It was the 15th best grosser in 1974, which is not a bad performance, but part two of the Coppola Godfather epic also beat Chinatown at the box office, and by better than a 2-to-1 ratio, grossing $30m to Chinatown's $12m.

Chinatown was clearly the number two dog that year, with its one Oscar, and the great irony is that the one Oscar it did receive may have been the least deserved.

Stop and think about it for a minute. What makes Chinatown a great movie?
  • Unforgettable, instantly recognizable musical score (by Jerry Goldsmith) which supports the mood perfectly.
  • Beautiful, stylized evocation of the pre-war California era - perfect cinematography, dripping with period detail.
  • Unique, memorable, downbeat ending, making it a classic noir.
  • Brilliant lead performance by Nicholson.

The Oscar winning writer, Robert Towne, contributed none of the above. What he wrote was a labyrinthine, mediocre detective story with excellent dialogue, an effort that could have resulted in a poor film, except that other men turned it into a work of genius.

"Wait a minute", you are thinking, "what about that memorable ending you are so crazy about?"

That's the right question to ask, but Towne didn't write the ending. Towne wanted the daughter (the Faye Dunaway character) to save her own daughter/sister from their evil, corrupt father (John Huston) by killing him. In doing so, she would also save the farmers from her father's ruthless exploitation and possibly help the people of Los Angeles avert a water crisis. A woman killing her own father? Isn't that dark enough? Not for the director, Roman Polanski, who had a much darker soul than that. He knew from personal experience that the world was cruel and arbitrary and that the bad guys often win. He had grown up as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland and had seen his own beloved wife killed by the Manson family. Polanski threw out Towne's ending, and allowed the bad guy to win in every way. Huston got the innocent daughter/granddaughter in his clutches, he killed off his pesky and honorable daughter, and nobody could do a damned thing about it because he owned the law in that town.

What about the great locale for the final scene? Towne didn't come up with that, either. His whole concept of "Chinatown" was as a symbolic place where the police are ineffectual because the place operates with its own secret laws and hidden power brokers. That was Towne's metaphor for all of Los Angeles, where the greedy Huston character rules above the law. Polanski insisted that it was simply too abstract to call a film Chinatown when it has absolutely nothing to do with Chinatown, so he rewrote it to allow the final scene to take place there. That made it particularly appropriate for Nicholson's associate to deliver the final, agonized line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". I think that was probably more effective than having the scene take place in the suburbs, and having the guy say something like "There's nothing you can do Jake. It's just like being a cop in Chinatown."

So ya see, Polanski was not only the director, but he did the best writing as well. He must have clenched his teeth when he saw Towne get his film's only Oscar ...

 ... especially since Polanski and Towne hated each other's guts by the time the filming had started. Towne, in fact, was barred from the set, and reportedly only visited it once, smuggled in unseen in the back of someone else's car!

Of course, Towne wasn't the only person who hated Roman Polanski. The Polish auteur wasn't a graduate of the Hal Ashby Nurturing School of Direction. He was arrogant and monarchial on his sets, and plenty of people who worked on the film wished they had been barred like Robert Towne. Chief among them was Queen Temperament herself, Faye Dunaway, who may have set the all time tantrum record during this film.

Polanski was actually lucky in having cast Dunaway. She not only turned in a perfect performance for him, but her tantrums took all the psychic heat off him as well. The rest of the cast and crew hated Dunaway so much that they completely forgot how much they might have hated Polanski. In fact the crew even bonded with Polanski on those days when he was especially cruel to Dunaway.

Based on the comments of many observers, Dunaway undoubtedly deserved it the treatment she got. There are many great stories about her antics on this set, but the one that really sums it up is that Dunaway considered herself such a big star that she could not deign to flush the toilet. When she left a load in her trailer, she called crew workers to flush for her. Is it any wonder that she was so brilliant a few years later as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest?

There was a third reason why Polanski was lucky to get Dunaway. It could have been FAR worse. Did you know that Towne originally wrote the script with Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda in mind? That wouldn't have been egregiously bad, but the next actress to be considered would have been a disaster. Towne took his original script to Paramount and showed it to Bob Evans. One of the reasons Evans greenlighted the project is that he thought it would be a perfect vehicle for his own wife - that noted thespian, Ali McGraw!

Ali's casting would have been disastrous for the picture, but not nearly as galling for viewers as it would have been for Evans, because Ali was about to hurt Evans deeply. Towne brought the Chinatown script to Evans while Ms McGraw was filming The Getaway and falling in love with Steve McQueen.  Evans was blissfully unaware at the time of what was happening between his wife and the rugged star, and he later pointed out that when Ali was dancing with him at the Godfather premiere, "She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen's cock."1

So, does Chinatown have the highest IMDb rating for a film which did not win the Best Picture Oscar? No. Not even close. At #48 it can get in line far behind seven of the top thirteen.

2 Shawshank Redemption, The (1994) 8.9/10
5 Shichinin no samurai (1954) 8.7/10
7 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The (2002) 8.7/10
9 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The (2001) 8.7/10
10 Star Wars (1977) 8.7/10
11 Citizen Kane (1941) 8.7/10
13 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) 8.6/10

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic. Looks quite good, although somewhat grainy.

  • Never-before-seen interviews with director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans


There is no good look at Faye Dunaway's breasts, but one nipple is on film, and there is a side-rear shot as she gets out of bed.


1. "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", Peter Biskind, Touchstone Edition, p 162.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three and a half stars. James Berardinelli 4/4, BBC 4/5.

  • It was nominated for eleven Oscars, won for Best Original Screenplay.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.4/10. (Top 50 of all time.)
  • It was a moderate hit, the number #15 grosser in 1974.


Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B+. Genre masterpiece, popular crossover hit, nominated for 11 Oscars. Its only real weakness is a unnecessarily convoluted plot, which may turn off those who are not fans of noir detective stories.

Return to the Movie House home page