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.”