Chinatown – Blue’s Beats #11
Blue’s Beats is a new blog series where we break down various nominated feature screenplays by identifying and discussing their important beats.
Today we’ll be taking a look at the 1976 neo-noir mystery, Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski. The film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 1975 Academy Awards.
To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.
Private investigator J. J. “Jake” Gittes investigates an ostensibly open-and-shut case involving an adulterous husband and a jealous wife. In classic noir fashion, Jake is reluctantly drawn into a mysterious world of double-crosses, murder, and nasal mutilation. As the treacherous conspiracy unfolds, Jake must decide just where his loyalty lays.
Jake is approached by a mysterious woman who hires him to carry out surveillance on her husband, chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whom she suspects of infidelities. After snapping some pics of the suspect in question, he returns to the office where he’s accosted by a woman he’s never met, claiming that the woman who commissioned him to keep an eye on her husband was an impostor.
PLOT POINT ONE
Soon afterwards, the chief engineer is fished out of a freshwater reservoir, presumably drowned. When Jake begins to look into allegations of foul play, he’s deterred by the Water Department Security Chief and a hired goon who slash Jake’s nose with a switchblade. After a hard day, Jake returns to the office where he receives a call from a woman named Ida Sessions, who identifies herself as the phony wife from the beginning of the film. Fearful of the consequences of divulging sensitive information, she refuses tell Jake who she’s working for outright, but provides him with a clue as to who’s really pulling the strings.
After some hard-core sleuthing, Jake teams up with the genuine wife of the chief engineer in an attempt to solve the murder. Together they uncover some subterfuge involving the large-scale accumulation of valuable pieces of land, carried out in the names of senile pensioners. After things get intimate between Jake and Evelyn—the engineer’s former wife—he discovers that she seems to be holding another woman, whom he assumes is the engineer’s mistress, against her will. When Jake confronts Evelyn, she reveals that the woman in question is actually her sister.
PLOT POINT TWO
The next day, Jake receives an anonymous call, prompting to visit the home of Ida Sessions, only to discover that she’s been murdered. When he enters the house, he finds a police Lieutenant, an associate of his, waiting for him. He tells Jake that he suspects Evelyn of murdering Ida, and suggests that he divulge her whereabouts quickly or he’ll face charges as well. Jake manages to shake off the Lieutenant and returns to Evelyn’s mansion, where he finds her servants packing her bags and preparing for a quick getaway. Jake corners Evelyn and confronts her about her “sister,” whom she then claims is her daughter. This enrages Jake, and he slaps her until she confessions that the girl is both her sister and her daughter, and savagely asks Jake if it’s “too tough” to understand what happened between her and her father.
CRISIS AND CLIMAX
While at the mansion, Jake finds a final clue pointing to the real identity of the murderer, and makes preparations for Evelyn and her daughter/sister to flee to Mexico. He asks Evelyn to meet him in Chinatown, where they’ll regroup, then proceed across the border. However, Jake is captured by even more hired goons, who force him at gunpoint to take them to where the women are hiding. When they reach Chinatown, the police and the real murderer—Evelyn’s own father—are waiting for them. The police detain Jake, and Evelyn quickly tries to flee the scene before her abusive father can get too close. Evelyn shoots her father in the arm and drives away with her daughter in tow, prompting the police to pull their sidearms and fire at the quickly departing pair. Evelyn is killed, whereupon her father takes possession of his youngest daughter and leads her away.
Punctuating this bleak and nihilistic climax, the police Lieutenant orders our protagonist released and utters the now-famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”