Saturday, August 25, 2012

Billy Wilder, Sherlock Holmes, & The Private Life of Nicholas Meyer

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



The curtains have been pulled over the porthole, and it is semi-dark.  In bed is a youngish couple. They are motionless, naked, and covered up to their necks with a sheet. On the night-table is a tray with three empty champagne bottles, two glasses, and a couple of swizzle-sticks.  On the dresser is a bridal bouquet, a bit wilted by now, and a grey top hat. Against the wall is an open steamer trunk, plastered with labels from various hotels. Male and female clothes are strewn around.

         Be careful not to touch anything.
         Clues, you know.

He pulls the curtains slightly apart to let in some daylight. The porthole's open. Then he steps to the bed, lifts the sheet, inspects the naked bodies.(CAMERA is in such position that he can see but we cannot.)

                    WATSON (CONT'D)
                (a small note of
         I was correct. They are definitely
         of opposite sexes.

         I'm willing to accept that.

                (studying the naked bodies)
         No wounds, no blood, no signs of
         violence -- The porthole's open, so
         it can't be suffocation--everything 
         seems to point to death by poisoning.

He lowers the sheet, draws it over their heads.
                    WATSON (CONT'D)
         Let's see. We can immediately eliminate 
         the possibility that the poison was 

         How so?
         My dear Holmes, people who are about 
         to commit suicide don't put their shoes 
         out to be shined.

         Good shot.
         We are therefore faced with a clear-
         cut case of murder. Poisoned by a 
         person or persons unknown.

         I would be inclined to suspect the 
         chef. Did you taste the Lobster Thermidor 
         last night?

         Quiet, Holmes. I'm concentrating.

WATSON’S eyes travel around the cabin, come to rest on the champagne set-up.

                (an inspiration)
         The champagne!
He picks up one of the glasses -- there is a drop of champagne left. He holds it against the light, then he dips his finger in, tests it with the tip of his tongue.

                    WATSON (CONT'D)
                (holding out glass)
         What do you see, Holmes? What do you 

                (sniffing glass)

         Exactly. It was a colorless, odor­less, 
         crystalline alkaloid of the belladonna 

         An inescapable conclusion.

         Now suppose the poison had been 
         introduced into the bottle –­

         It's possible.

         No it isn't. Because once you remove 
         the cork, the champagne would be flat, 
         and they would send it back.

         Right you are.

WATSON’S face, agonized by concentration, suddenly lights up.


         Ah, what?

         Holmes, you're going to be very proud 
         of me. The victims stirred their own 
         fatal potion.

         But you said it couldn't be suicide.

         It wasn't. Here are the murder weapons
         --these two innocent swizzle-sticks.
                (picks them up,
                 holds them out)
         They were coated with belladonna, 
         which dissolved as they were stirring 
         their champagne.

         How devilish.

         You agree, then, that we have 
         established the method --

         Not yet. We must now look for a 
         motive. Exactly what do we know 
         about this ill-fated couple?
                (wandering around
         Observe the man's hat. Those white 
         specks--how would you explain them?

         A careless sea gull, perhaps.

         Hardly. You will find that they 
         are grains of rice.


         That, taken in conjunction with 
         the wilted bouquet, would seem to 
         indicate that they were recently 
         married. I would further surmise 
         that they are on their honeymoon
         --­judging from the labels on the 
         steamer trunk.

         Not to mention the rapturous 
         expression on their faces.

         Quite. Now let us ask ourselves-­- 
         who could conceivably have such 
         fiendish designs against a young 
         married couple?


         A jilted lover, of course.

         I can't argue with that.

         Now then!  Since we are in mid-
         Mediterranean, and since I assume 
         the culprit is not amphibious, it 
         stands to reason that he is still 
         on board.


         But where? --- He can't be a member 
         of the crew -- it’s too much of a 
         coincidence for the honeymooners to 
         wind up on the same ship. On the 
         other hand, he can't be a passenger, 
         either -- too much danger that they 
         would recognize him before he could 

         Splendid. You've just ruled out
         all the possibilities.

         Not quite. What you have failed to
         consider, my dear Holmes, is that
         he could be a stow-away.

                 (reaching up)
         I tip my fez to you.

         So! He sneaks aboard -- spies on
         them -- learns that between bouts
         of lovemaking, they have lashings
         of champagne. And then, last
         night --­
                 (breaks off)
         But how does a stow-away lay
         his hands on belladonna? I'm a doctor
         -- and I don't normally carry it.
         However, you know who would have
         an unlimited supply available to
         him? An eye-doctor.


          They use belladonna to dilate the

          That must be it.

          Which leaves us with only one 
          problem unresolved -- that business 
          with the swizzle-sticks -- How did 
          he manage it?

          Don't keep me in suspense, Watson.

          I think when we track him down, 
          you'll find that we are dealing    
          with a rather corpulent man.

          How did you arrive at that?

                 (pointing through
                  open doorway)
          Observe the narrowness of the 
          passage way. Now picture a 
          steward carrying the tray toward 
          the cabin. You or I would have 
          no trouble passing him. But if a 
          man were pot-bellied, they would 
          have to squeeze past each other 
          side­ways. The tray would be between 
          them, and he could easily substi­-
          tute the poison swizzle-sticks for 
          the harmless ones.

          Watson, are you sure this is your 
          first case?

                 (winging by now)
          To sum up, therefore. We must 
          look for a stowaway, who is in 
          love with the bride, weighs at 
          least sixteen stone, and is a 
          practicing optician -- that's 
          our man.

          A classic example of deductive 

          Nothing to it, really. When you 
          eliminated all the solutions,    
          however improbable, whatever is 
          left must be  impossible.
          No, that doesn't sound right --­

          Close enough.

          Now, if my theory about the cause 
          of death is correct--poisoning by 
          belladonna--palpation should now 
          reveal a marked extension of the 

He throws the sheet back, disclosing the man and woman, naked to the waist. With his fingers outspread, he presses down several times on the woman's abdomen. She stirs, moans, turns sleepily towards her husband.

          Can I have some more champagne?

From “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners,” a lost segment of the roadshow version of Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, never formally released in this form.

Recently, after a long search, I finally managed to read a copy of a screenplay of the original full (roadshow) version of Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (hereafter referred to as TPLOSH). This was a script I’d been hunting for decades. Having seen the released film and knowing there was more, in fact, well over an hour more, I wanted to know what was cut out.

As some may know, the original film as shot ran over 3 hours and included an intermission. This type of release was referred to in the business as a “roadshow” picture. Others have included many biblical epics, novelty films like CINERAMA, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, and various historical epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The roadshow film of TPLOSH was seen by only a few audiences in test showings, and, thanks to the climate within the film industry in 1969-70, not to mention, the disastrous release of the Julie Andrews-starring roadshow film, STAR, withdrawn by the studio and reduced to standard length. The rumors were that it lost well over an hour. Since it was a compilation of six segments encompassing a prologue and five “tales,” cutting was simply a matter of taking out a few segments in favor of a few surviving others. No plot material from the surviving segments would be damaged. The studio had, in TPLOSH, the perfect victim for something it did routinely with many less than “ideal” prospects whose sole, single, and only plots were unceremoniously gutted in favor of exhibitors having an additional show or two per night. It seemed never to occur to them that the story, once reduced to fragments, might lose the audience that would have filled the single showing, but now avoided the twice-per-night showing because it “isn’t any good.”  

I already knew the essentials of the missing material from seeing the re-construction in the special features on the latest TPLOSH DVD. I think I also once read the novelization by Michael and Mollie Hardwick from 1971 (though I no longer have a copy, and can't recall if it was the full version). At 154 pages, it was probably not the roadshow version. Having a background in book publishing, and seeing the pub date, I suspect the original novel manuscript might have reflected the full roadshow film, but it was, as a result of the studio cuts, delayed and, itself, cut to match the released film, yielding an uncharacteristically short fiction paperback for the era (they all used to strive for 180 - 300 pages back then).

The commonly available copy of the script for TPLOSH runs 140 pages, and the released film runs 125 minutes. On the other hand, the text of the roadshow version of TPLOSH runs 223 pages (with 6 more for a complete studio credit list), and, at the back, along with the credit list, it states the original roadshow running time as 200 minutes (at the prevailing page-per-minute benchmark, certainly that does not include the intermission). So, the cuts amounted to 80+ pages or 75 minutes. The number of segments went from 6 (a 10-page prologue plus 5 stories) to 3 (a 2-page prologue plus 2 stories). While, ordinarily five stories in a 3+ hour movie was odd, it was exactly right for Sherlock Holmes, who “lived” originally in 56 short stories, but only 4 novels, 2 of which were more novellas with long introductions setting up the back stories. So Holmes works best in the short tale.

For the record, the original five stories in the roadshow version included: “The Case of the Philandering Singing Teacher” (7 pages), “The Curious Case of the Upside-Down Room” (43 pages), “The Singular Affair of the Russian Ballerina” (32 pages), “The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners” (17 pages), and “The Adventure of the Dumbfounded Detective” (113 pages). The difference that makes the total 223 pages amounts to partial pages and/or transitions from one to the next. Of these, only the “Russian Ballerina” segment and the “Dumbfounded Detective” segment survived in slightly reduced versions (30 and 100 pages, respectively; and the prologue went from 10 pages to 2; the rest is re-worked connective material).

I much preferred the excised material over the stuff that was retained (which, of course, I'd seen several times in the final release version). This was not due to over-familiarity with the existing released film. The two stories left in the film do not hold up well for several reasons. “The Russian Ballerina” story “dates” for reasons I will go into in a moment, and it re-works an old non-canonical idea done to death in the Holmes movies of the ‘40s. “The Dumbfounded Detective” fares even worse as it re-works an idea from the original short stories, and fails to end strongly.  

“The Russian Ballerina” segment seemed daring and heretical (to "the establishment") in 1969, playing, as it did, with the idea of Holmes and Watson being gay--it was still okay back then for otherwise politically-correct progressive types to openly refer to gays with the 6-letter "F" word (I listened to a "hip" comedy album from someone, circa 1970, a while ago, and that's what the comic did--it was genuinely surprising; I'd forgotten how things have evolved). But today, for audiences, it amounts to "been there done that," and ultimately it’s unfunny and simply boring. 

The Loch Ness segment (“Dumbfounded Detective”) had always been disappointing to me because the ending was anti-climactic and Holmes is bested by a woman who is NOT Irene Adler (whom A.C. Doyle had intended to be the only person to ever beat S.H.). Why not use Adler as a freelance agent working for the Germans, something for which her experience qualified her, rather than the freshly-created German agent Ilse von Hoffmanstal? So it was just imitative of Adler without giving us the real (fictional) thing (she never really out-thinks him in Wilder’s film--compare it to the version of Adler in the BBC SHERLOCK series, for example where she is a true opponent). She, then, dies off-screen (compare that to the BBC SHERLOCK re-take of much the same idea where the scenario is transplanted to the middle-east). And her execution, then, sends him back to the cocaine (validating its use in a time when illegal drugs were almost becoming an acceptable thing). To me, as with the homosexuality, Wilder and Diamond were pandering to their 1969 audience, trying much too hard to become "hip" themselves. As a result, just as with that "comic" described above, they "dated" themselves and their film, and they failed to satisfy the audience with the expected “rollicking good time” from a “game” well “afoot.” 

By today’s standards, the script seems "talky," almost a soap opera, especially when Watson throws his tantrum over Holmes choosing to get high. It re-surfaces when Watson blames Holmes for casting them as a gay couple to get out of marriage to the Russian Ballerina, Watson self-absorbedly perceiving it as a threat to his own reputation, with Holmes’s and his own careers (idiotically) forgotten. 

The submarine plot of the final segment was a weak take on something Doyle had already done with his "Bruce Partington Plans" short story. It starts out well enough, but once it has to pay-off all the mysteries already set up, it has no good solution, and instead opts for a sort of “Deus ex machina” in the form of Holmes’s (“smarter”) brother, Mycroft, who “acquaints” Sherlock with what’s really going on. This effectively neuters the hero. To validate it and avoid a complete humiliation of S.H., Mycroft, himself, is trumped by the appearance and regal fiat of Queen Victoria. With the truth finally out, and the villains unmasked and defeated, the effect is to further disappoint the audience with an unequivocal downer of an ending: Holmes loses his status as hero, and he loses the new love of his life. What’s left but the needle? And, to boot, all that does not improve the original pre-existing short story’s approach. So, why should we bother?

Because the segment runs 113 pages--longer than all the others combined (!), it was placed last. But that made the film end on a melancholy note. And that, in turn, conspired with the poor ticket sales of STAR to prompt the studio to judge it a potential disaster. So, the whole thing seems to have been a "fait accompli." Wilder and Diamond had a bunch of strong ideas for a take on the Holmes characters, but half of them were insufficiently re-warmed Doyle, and the other half were doomed by their "hip" approaches, or their unsatisfying endings. Despite all that, there were lots of great moments in the script, and one genuinely feels for Holmes at the end when Mycroft delivers the news to the detective. 

So, there was in evidence, certainly, great affection for the characters. It’s almost tragic that the writers couldn't get away from the "Watson as buffoon" trope that had been dogging the character ever since Nigel Bruce and the Rathbone films. Too bad, as, other than in a few rare moments, it was never really true of the original stories. Sure, Holmes always had to show Watson the light, but Watson was portrayed with a level of respect missing in the Bruce films.

Though the “Philandering Singing Teacher” was mere fluff, the “Naked Honeymooners” segment was good unclean fun. It was clear the writers were again after that 1969 audience, then becoming accustomed to ever-more nudity appearing before the larger adult audience, a phenomenon that culminated with DEEP THROAT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and thereafter declined until we rarely see full frontal nudity anymore. So, Wilder wanted to shoot his first nude scene in order to stay relevant. For the record, it only exposed a woman’s breasts, hardly daring by the standards of a few years later. But, for me, at least, even this was a little "shrill" from a director who never needed to be. 

Billy Wilder had been a master of the mystery with DOUBLE INDEMNITY and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, and with the Doyle characters, he need only have rendered them faithfully to have another classic. But he apparently felt his grasp of the audience slipping. It is not surprising, given the changes going on in the film industry (EASY RIDER, THE GRADUATE, the arrival of the youth audience, the collapse of the studio system, the decline and/or deaths of many of the stars and moguls from the classic period of the '30s and '40s, etc.). Like Hitchcock (MARNIE, TOPAZ, FRENZY, FAMILY PLOT) during the same period, Wilder never really "got it back."

The “Upside-Down Room” was also fun, even though Watson was made the idiot for, perhaps (I hope), the last time in films. To me, the Watson-as-buffoon thing always seemed a back-handed slap at the audience because we were usually only as "in-the-know" on Holmes's cases as Watson was. So if he's an idiot, then so, too, are we. There's an old rule: never underestimate (or insult) your audience. The Rathbone films got away with it because Bruce was played even broader than Blakely had played him, so the audience could see the pure comedy as just that. But Blakely's character was portrayed and played as seriously stupid; ditto, us, therefore, in the eyes of the storytellers. 
As a film, unfortunately, TPLOSH's casting was weak, and the direction may have suffered from Wilder's insensitivity to the mood and tone of the 19th Century Victorian mystery setting. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely seemed to lack the necessary chemistry to get the film going. Blakely couldn't approach Bruce's buffoon, and Stephens lacked the charisma of Rathbone. So the roadshow version of the film, for me, probably would've always been something of a disappointment.

And yet, somehow the film has always held a special place in my heart. I’m an unabashed Wilder fan, and I so wanted his Holmes film to be great. So it stays in my memory as a work that can be. It was mutilated by the studio, so it is, effectively, un-finished. And that, in turn, means, that in another place, another reality, it could be what he envisioned, if we could only find a way to get it right.

Now for some interesting speculation:

I once wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, THE PANDORA PLAGUE, which combined S.H. with magician, Harry Houdini. Among the research assembled for that book, was HOUDINI: A MIND IN CHAINS, by Dr. Bernard C. Meyer, a prominent New York City psychiatrist.

It was, and still is, not uncommon for celebrities and VIPs to be invited to advance screenings of important films. New York would very likely have been one of the cities granted a screening of the roadshow of TPLOSH. It’s possible Dr. Meyer and his family were in attendance. So...

At one point in the roadshow version (pp. 31-2) Watson tells Holmes that drug addiction is being cured in Vienna with a high rate of success. Watson suggests Holmes go to Europe and give it a try. He even offers to go with him. Holmes dismisses it, and the story moves on.

Some four years later a book appeared that went on to become a huge bestseller. THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION told the story of Sherlock Holmes being tricked by Watson into chasing Professor James Moriarty to Europe, and all the way to Vienna. Moriarty was, in this novel, Holmes’s former mathematics teacher, a man whom Holmes believed to be the greatest criminal mind in Europe, but who was, in the novel, merely a math tutor. When Holmes, as a boy, found Moriarty and his own mother in “flagrante dilecto,” and then witnessed her murder by Holmes’s father followed by his own suicide, it sent the young Holmes over the edge. Though he recovered, thereafter, he believed Moriarty to be a blackguard of the first rank. To deal with his memories, Holmes takes cocaine. So says the novel. But when they get to Vienna, all is revealed and Holmes discovers Watson tricked him and he is to undergo a cure of his cocaine addiction by none other than Sigmund Freud. Freud had recently cured himself of the same addiction. So, half-way through the book, Freud cures Holmes. Thereafter, the story switches gears as otherwise, the tale would end short and flat. So the author tacks on a case that gives the audience that expected “rollicking good time.” And because it’s good and fun, we forgive him for it. Everybody wins.

Interestingly, however, the idea that Moriarty was Holmes’s mathematics tutor was proposed in William S. Baring-Gould’s essays and book, “Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.” And the idea that Moriarty had had an affair with Holmes’s mother that led to Holmes’s parents’ murder-suicide was posited in Trevor Hall’s book, “Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies.” So, that implied that the author of THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION had read Baring-Gould’s and Hall’s books, uncommon volumes unless one was especially interested in the world of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, an author of a Holmes pastiche would be, I would think. Or... he might become such an author after becoming acquainted with such powerful ideas as these.

But how to make use of them? They happen long before young Holmes becomes the Sherlock Holmes of the stories. So, naturally, they are of the past, something Holmes must certainly have found painful, even psychologically devastating. How, then would it all manifest in Holmes as an adult? Would it, perhaps, account for a drug addiction problem? But, then how would that generate a story? If Holmes’s addiction was rooted in a massive psychological injury, then it would take, not a seven percent, but rather a psychological solution. Enter Sigmund Freud. It happens that prior to the appearance of the Holmes-Freud book, there appeared an article in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” by psychiatrist Dr. David F. Musto that connected Holmes with Freud through cocaine. An article in “Elementary, My Dear Watson,” by Irving L. Jafee, added to it. These were mostly arcane works to the average person, but they might be familiar to someone with an interest in Holmes and access to medical magazines, perhaps through his father. All that might be needed was a spark that brought them all to mind, a spark such as is found on page 31 of the roadshow version of TPLOSH.

I can even imagine the conversation on the ride home from the movie:

Nicholas - “Were they really curing drug addiction back in the 1800s in Europe?”

Dr. Meyer - “Sure, remember Watson mentioned Vienna? Freud was in Vienna then, and cured himself of it.”

Nicholas - “Wow. No kidding! What if he and Holmes had met...?”

Dr. Meyer - “There’s a story in that, Nick.”

Nicholas - “But, he’d resist. How would Watson get him there? You know, if Moriarty really was responsible for Holmes’s addiction, but he was not the criminal Holmes thought he was, what if he tries to atone by helping Watson trick Holmes into going to Vienna by ‘playing’ Moriarty the criminal and leading Holmes on a merry chase that ends in the offices of Sigmund Freud?”

Dr. Meyer - “Now THAT’s a story, Nick.”

So, Dr. Bernard C. Meyer, our psychiatrist in New York City, attends the advanced screening of Billy Wilder’s film. With him, perhaps, is his son, a young man with an ongoing interest in Sherlock Holmes, a young man named Nicholas, who, only a few years later would publish his first bestseller, THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, a story in which three powerful ideas conceived earlier were combined.    

Nicholas Meyer built a career off the Freud premise. The irony is that, at the same time, by the studio cutting THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES to 2 hours, and thus throwing the concept away, Wilder might’ve lost one. He never had a great success thereafter. And we’ll never know if the roadshow version might’ve spawned a sequel that had Holmes heading for Vienna. Another bit of irony: when Billy Wilder was a young writer in Vienna, he once tried to get an interview with Sigmund Freud. Freud unceremoniously threw him out.

These speculations are not intended as insults directed at Nicholas Meyer, as he did the work and developed it into a bestseller, two sequels, and a film writing and directing career. Ideas aren't finished stories, and they can't be copyrighted. Ideas are "in the wind," and every great work is influenced by ideas from earlier thinkers. But, if this speculation is true, it wouldn't have hurt if Meyer had acknowledged Wilder and Diamond in the original novel. Nonetheless, it’s all speculation.

This just in!!! I hadn't re-read Meyer's book in over three years, so I'd forgotten details from it. But in flipping through it, lo and behold, I find a character in the book in the Vienna sections named "Hugo Von Hofmannsthal." So, in 1969 Wilder and Diamond write a movie with a German character named Ilse von Hoffmanstal. And four years later Nicholas Meyer publishes a book using an idea described in the 1969 script and 1970 complete version of the movie with a German character with an almost identical last name. Unless this name has a deeper pedigree from the Holmes stories themselves, this is hard to ignore as a mere coincidence. Curiouser and curiouser.

For the record, I wrote THE PANDORA PLAGUE after I read Nicholas Meyer’s book on Holmes and Freud, and Dr. Bernard C. Meyer’s book on Houdini. And I read Baring-Gould’s and Hall’s books before both of them.

Nicholas, if you’re out there, can you clear up the mystery? Did Billy Wilder’s film  play a role in bringing all of these ideas together in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION? #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

“Nicholas Meyer built a career off the Freud premise. The irony is that, at the same time, by the studio cutting THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES to 2 hours, and thus throwing the concept away, Wilder might’ve lost one. He never had a great success thereafter. And we’ll never know if the roadshow version might’ve spawned a sequel that had Holmes heading for Vienna.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

CHINATOWN's Ending: Towne vs. Polanski

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

(Spoilers ahead!!! If you’ve never seen it, I strongly recommend that you see CHINATOWN before reading further, or this great film will be ruined for you.)


There's a single GUNSHOT. Both men look surprised. Down the block a uniformed officer has fired, standing beside his double-parked car. Duffy's sedan slows to a stop in the middle of the street. It jerks a couple of times, still in gear, then comes to a halt.

Gittes rushes to the car. He opens it. Evelyn falls out, inert.

Blood is pouring from her right eye.


He holds onto Evelyn as Escobar and others hurry up. Cross himself elbows through.
            Where is he? I'll kill him, 
            I'll kill the son of a bitch.

Several officers contain Gittes.
               (continuing; to 
            Who is he, get his name? I'll 
            kill him.

               (badly shaken)
            Take it easy, take it easy, it 
            was an accident.

            An accident?

Gittes looks down. What he sees horrifies him. Cross is on the ground, holding Evelyn's body, crying.

            Get him away from her. He's 
            responsible for everything. Get 
            him away from her!

            Jake, you're very disturbed. 
            You're crazy. That's her father.

Walsh and Duffy elbow through the crowd.

               (continuing; to them)
            You wanna do your partner the 
            biggest favor of his life? Take 
            him home. Just get him the hell 
            out of here!

Duffy bear hugs the protesting Gittes, along with Walsh, literally dragging him away from the scene, with Gittes trying to shake free.

Through the crowd noises, Walsh can be heard saying, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."


Excerpt, CHINATOWN (10/9/1973 Draft), by Robert Towne

In the release version of CHINATOWN, based on what has become known as the “third draft” (there were reputedly many drafts prior to this one), dated 10/9/1973, the dénouement happens in L.A.’s Chinatown of the 1930s:

Private detective J.J. Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) has penetrated the mystery, discovering that aging and wealthy businessman, Noah Cross (played by John Huston), has manipulated two separate California governments and the real estate market allowing him to secretly divert much-needed water to Los Angeles and from the farmland area where it had been, allowing him to buy up San Fernando Valley farms for pennies on the dollar. Gittes also determined that Cross killed his own business partner and son-in-law, Hollis Mulwray, to cover it up. In the process, Gittes has discovered that Cross has fathered a grand-daughter by his dead partner’s wife, daughter Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway). Hollis Mulwray and wife, Evelyn, have spent the past 15 years keeping Cross away from his "granddaughter," actually daughter, child of he and Evelyn, who is, therefore, mother (and sister) to the child. Cross desperately wants to see and get to know her before he dies.

Evelyn, anticipating that she can no longer protect her daughter, attempts to spirit her away through the help of her trusted Chinese servant, late one night. But Cross, with his bodyguard, has forced Gittes to go with them to Chinatown, and arrives right behind her. A confrontation ensues, right in the street, complicated by the arrival of two of Gittes’s operatives, and police Lt. Escobar. Other officers arrive as Evelyn, Gittes, and Cross argue. Evelyn jumps into the car her daughter is in to get away, a shot is heard, and the car crashes. Evelyn is dead, shot in the head by an officer who mistook her flight as escape from Lt. Escobar. As Walsh tries to pull Gittes away, he mutters, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

In an earlier draft, however, sometimes called the “first draft,” dated 8/3/1973, the character names, the relationships, and especially the ending are all different:

Here the 3rd draft’s Noah Cross is named Julian Cross. Here, Lt. Escobar may have had a relationship with Evelyn Mulwray. Here, Chinatown is merely the title, nowhere a setting, and therefore mere metaphor.

As it begins to rain outside, Gittes confronts Evelyn with what he’s learned about her father. She is preparing to leave for Ensenada with her daughter for unstated reasons. Gittes wants to know what’s going on. He tells her Cross only wants to see his daughter, believing Cross means Evelyn. Evelyn doesn’t correct the misunderstanding. He asks her to talk to Cross, and gives her a phone number. She calls, arranges to meet him, and then leaves, entrusting her daughter to Gittes. A short few minutes later on the street, Gittes turns the girl over to his secretary, Sophie, and heads to his apartment. Entering, he’s decked by Lt. Escobar, livid, believing Gittes betrayed Evelyn, whom Escobar suspects murdered her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Escobar thinks Gittes has been paid off by her father. Gittes proves that’s wrong. Then Escobar reveals that Cross’s “granddaughter” is also his and Evelyn’s daughter. Escobar wants to know where Evelyn went. Gittes tells him: the beach to meet her father, coming in from Catalina island. Escobar tells Gittes that she tried to kill him the last time they met, she’ll certainly do it this time. They go after her.

At the beach Cross’s seaplane arrives and he and his bodyguard get out and head for their car, parked along the coast highway. Evelyn is already there. She tries to run them down. Then, ignoring the bodyguard’s shooting, she goes after her father with a .45. The rain is now a torrential downpour. She stalks Julian Cross, who runs toward a large “bait” sign along the road. Meanwhile, Gittes and Escobar arrive and just as the bodyguard is about to shoot her, he’s shot instead by Gittes. But she ignores it, determined to get Cross who has managed, in the confusion, to get behind the bait sign. She fires again and again at the fish on the sign, and kills Cross, hiding on the other side.

So, Evelyn Mulwray gets four years in prison for killing her father, but then, after getting out, she disappears. Gittes never sees her again.      

What happened between August and October, 1973, to cause such changes?

I'll get to that in a moment. However, one change that occurs is that the reveal that Evelyn is both mother and sister to Katherine, the "granddaughter," one of the most famous scenes in the film, is far less effective in the earlier draft. There, Lt. Escobar tells Gittes the truth of Evelyn's daughter's parentage. By the later draft, Gittes literally beats it out of Evelyn directly. He asks her. She tells him Katherine's her sister. Thinking she's lying and badly at that, he slaps her. She tells him she's her daughter. He slaps her again. She says, "Sister." Slap! "Daughter." Slap! So she says, "She's my sister and my daughter. My father and I... Understand? Or is it too tough for you?" This is so much more powerful coming from her than from Escobar. With no evidence to the contrary, I have to say this is from Robert Towne, not Roman Polanski. So, then, continuing:

The story goes that the studio, Paramount, complained that there were no scenes set in L.A.’s Chinatown, and, because of the title, audiences would be expecting it. Ah... mass entertainment. No place for subtlety.

But the other thing that happened was that Paramount studio head, Robert Evans, hired director Roman Polanski, and, though diminutive, Polanski was hugely talented. He also understood story.

Polanski was right in changing screenwriter Robert Towne’s ending in CHINATOWN.


The story is a grand tragedy involving powerful people and powerful stakes.

The original Towne ending (for this film about water and power) had the John Huston character (Julian--later Noah--Cross), father of Faye Dunaway’s character (Evelyn Mulwray), being shot to death in a drought-ending Biblical-level deluge of a rainstorm at the beach.

Polanski argued that it should be Evelyn Mulwray who dies.

In both versions of the story, Evelyn Mulwray functioned as the hero of her’s and Cross’s daughter’s life. She both feared and so, prevented Cross’s potential sexual abuse of their common daughter. Should Cross have died, the evil would have been vanquished, but the point of the overriding tragedy would have been lost. With Evelyn Mulwray dying, it ascends to what it was trying to become, a grand tragedy, punching its point home with grand irony, in the manner of classic literature, such as Oedipus.

One must note that in both versions of the story, Evelyn Mulwray is established as having a flaw in her eye’s iris. At the end of the Polanski version, she dies as the result of being shot through the eye, in effect, her “flawed” “Achilles heel.”

Towne eventually came around to this, agreeing long after the film was released that Polanski was right.

Towne, immersed as he was in the detail and minutia of his story, saw only the trees. Polanski saw the implications in his story. He saw the forest. #

Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the post: “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”