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The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

Sam Wasson offers compelling account of the origins and making of Polanski’s film

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood
Author: Sam Wasson
ISBN-13: 978-0-571-34763-6
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £18.99

In August 1969, not long after the senseless murder of five people, including actress Sharon Tate, at a house near his own, in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, screenwriter Robert Towne decided that he needed a guard dog. The night after the killings another two murders were committed, and Los Angeles panicked. No one knew who was responsible. Anyone could be next.

“We were all running around with guns in our purses,” said Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. “We all suspected each other.”

Tate’s husband, the director Roman Polanski, was in London working on a film at the time of her murder. When he returned to LA, he went to their house at Cielo Drive, which was still spattered with blood, and found a pair of glasses in a flowerbed. Intensely paranoid, he closely examined his friends’ glasses when he visited their houses, and even mistakenly suspected the kung-fu star Bruce Lee when he mentioned that he had recently lost his spectacles. In Polanski’s 1974 film noir Chinatown, a pair of discarded bifocals identify the murderer.

Wasson’s book, which is compellingly told and meticulously researched, tells the story of the origins and making of Chinatown, and of the studio that produced it, Paramount, which was saved from collapse by the dynamism of its young head of production, Robert Evans. His preference for granting directors an unusual degree of creative autonomy bore fruit in a string of classic films, including The Godfather, on which Towne worked uncredited, and Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror, Rosemary’s Baby.


Towne’s search for a guard dog led him to an undercover vice cop who was selling a particularly fierce breed. The cop told Towne that he was posted in LA’s Chinatown, where the police didn’t understand the language and they couldn’t get a grip on the gangs, and as a result didn’t know whether they were helping or preventing someone commit a crime. So they mostly did nothing. The cop advised Towne to forget the dog and instead get a gun.

Script doctor

What the undercover officer had said about Chinatown stuck with Towne, known in Hollywood as an in-demand script doctor who had worked uncredited on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967. In unfamiliar situations that you can easily misread, is it better to do nothing rather than intervene to make things better but ultimately make things worse? Towne’s script for Chinatown would explore this conundrum.

Evans signed up Polanski as director for Chinatown. Towne spent fractious weeks trying to rewrite the screenplay with the director before Polanski finished the job on his own. (Jack Nicholson would play the lead character, private detective JJ Gittes.) Before Polanski’s intervention, the Chinatown script was a sprawling one, born of Towne’s obsessive research and quixotic belief that a film noir palpably nostalgic for old Los Angeles, whose plot dealt with civil engineering and incest, could find an audience. While plenty of time was allowed for pre-production – the scouting of locations, the acquisition of period props, the careful preparation that yielded a sumptuous vision of 1930s LA – it’s clear from Wasson’s fascinating book that its finished form depended on significant decisions made during production to correct missteps.

When Polanski had problems with the first cinematographer to work on the film, Stanley Cortez, he replaced him with the much younger John Alonzo, whose modern techniques of low-light photography supplied Chinatown with a visual depth that particularly fitted the meticulous production design. There was no satisfactory ending, so Polanski had to write one while filming. At the last minute, the dissonant, modern score was ditched by Evans in favour of a lush, jazz-inflected soundtrack hastily composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

Maverick filmmaking

The creative epoch of maverick filmmaking that Wasson lovingly documents in The Big Goodbye – which uses Chinatown as the central focus of what is essentially a group biography of the men who made it – is bookended by two crimes against females: the killing of Tate in 1969 and Polanski’s statutory rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) in 1977. Having accepted his guilt under a deal that recommended no jail time, Polanski spent 42 days of a 90-day term in a state prison being assessed. Soon afterwards, fearing further incarceration, Polanski fled to Europe and has never returned to America. While he has continued to make films, his reputation has come under renewed scrutiny in the #MeToo era.

A dark misogyny haunts Chinatown, and it can be hard to tell whether it’s wholly derived from the period setting or a projection of its director. Perhaps both. Actress Faye Dunaway, who played the female lead, Evelyn Mulwray, noticed her director’s enjoyment of the jarring scene in which she is slapped by Nicholson. Polanski thought it immoral not to show the reality and consequences of violence. Yet it clearly held a dark thrill too.

The director finally got the ending he wanted for Chinatown – pulled together at the last minute, yet virtuosic in its camera movements, and providing one of the most famous closing lines in the history of cinema. A character is gruesomely killed by a stray bullet, Nicholson looks punch-drunk with shock, and the camera rises above the neon lights and the darkness of the city’s streets. Roll credits.

“The point is the girl dies”, production designer Richard Sylbert said of Polanski. “That’s his whole life.”