"Water is the life blood of every community." With this statement, the Owens Valley History Site still does, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's website once used to begin its biography of William Mulholland, the real life model of two of this movie's characters, water department chief Hollis Mulwray (an obvious play on words) and water tycoon Noah Cross. And indeed water, the access to it and the wealth it provides, is what drives everything and everybody in this movie set in the ever-thirsty Los Angeles of the first decades of this century, a budding boom town on the brink of victory or decay ... and whether it will be one or the other depends on the city's ongoing access to drinking water.
Chinatown's story is based on William Mulholland's greatest coup; the construction of the Owen Valley aqueduct which provided Los Angeles with a steady source of drinking water but also entailed a lot of controversy. Splitting Mulholland's complex real-life persona into two fictional characters (the noble Mulwray who thinks that water should belong to the people and who refuses to authorize an unsavory new dam construction project and the greedy, unscrupulous Cross who will use any means to advance his personal fortune) creates the movie's one necessary black and white conflict ... other than this, the predominant shades are those of gray.
Into the wars raging around L.A.'s water supply, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is unwittingly thrown when a woman introducing herself as Hollis Mulwray's wife asks him to investigate her husband's alleged infidelity. Before he realizes what is going on he is drawn into a web of treachery and treason, and fatally attracted to the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Noah Cross (John Huston)'s daughter. Soon reaching the conclusion that he has been used, he refuses to drop the investigation, and instead decides to dig his way to the source of the scheming he has witnessed – the classical film noir setup.
To say that this movie is one of the best examples of the genre ever made is stating the obvious ... actually, it is beyond superfluous. Few other films are as tightly acted, scripted and directed, from Jack Nicholson's dapper-dressed, dogged Jake Gittes, who like any good noir detective is not half as hard boiled as he would have us believe, to Faye Dunaway's seductive and sad Evelyn Mulray, John Huston's cold-blooded and corrupt Noah Cross, Roman Polanski's brooding direction and Robert Towne's award-winning screen play, so full of memorable lines and the classical noir gumshoe dialogue, yet far more than just a well-done copy. And throughout it all, there that idea of Chinatown – that place where you do as little as possible, and where if you try to help someone, you're likely going to make double sure they're getting hurt.
Chinatown was Roman Polanski's return to Hollywood, five years after his wife (Sharon Tate) had been one of the victims of the Manson gang. Polanski and Towne fought hard whether the movie should have a happy ending or not. Polanski won, studio politics were favorable at the time, and the version we all know was produced. Towne later admitted that Polanski had been right; and in fact, it is hard to imagine what kind of happy ending would have worked with the movie at all – too deep-rooted are the conflicts presented, none of which lends itself to an easy solution. Unfortunately, being released the same year as "The Godfather II" robbed "Chinatown" much of the Academy Award attention it would have deserved; of 11 nominations (best movie, best actor – Jack Nicholson –, best actress – Faye Dunaway –, best director – Roman Polanski –, best screenplay – Robert Towne –, best original score – Jerry Goldsmith –, best cinematography, and others), the movie only won the Oscar for Towne's screenplay. Generations of fans, however, have long since recognized that Chinatown is a milestone in the history of the film noir and in the professional history of its participants, and one of Hollywood's finest hours.