In "Chinatown," Los Angeles' Chinatown is more of a metaphor than a place, until the end of the movie, when it becomes an all-too-real location.
"Chinatown is a pretty good metaphor for the futility of good intentions," says the film's screenwriter, Robert Towne. "[Police officers in the film] are told to do as little as possible in Chinatown in the way of law enforcement because you never know whether you're helping to avert a crime or helping to commit one."
In Towne's original script, no scenes were set in Chinatown. But by the third draft of the screenplay, Towne and director Roman Polanski did set the final sequence in the area, even as they disagreed on what action should take place there.
"Chinatown couldn't not be in the picture," says production designer Richard Sylbert, who chose the locations for the film.
Despite their many disagreements during the writing of the film, Towne and Polanski did agree on the importance of L.A. as a setting in what has become the quintessential Los Angeles movie.
"Robert Towne had this thing about Los Angeles, about the history of the city, and that's what makes it so profound," Polanski says. "Without that, you would just have another detective thing."
And Towne recalls "Roman repeatedly stressed the wisdom of repeating locations. In other words, if you've got one scene in the department of water and power, make sure you've got two. It orients an audience."
It was Sylbert's job to make that shared vision a reality, finding locations that would represent a seductively urbane vision of the city and the county, circa 1939. "This is a Los Angeles movie, not a Hollywood movie," he says.
Here Sylbert gives Calendar Weekend readers a tour of "Chinatown's" memorable locations. (Numbers correspond to the map on Page 14.)
1. Ida Sessions' Apartment
Toward the end of the film, the body of the murdered Ida Sessions is shown in her apartment--at 848 1/2 E. Kensington St. (in real life and the movie)--sprawled on the floor with a spilled bag of groceries. Sessions--played by Diane Ladd--was the SAG member who passed herself off as Evelyn Mulwray to Gittes at the beginning of the film.
In real life: Set in a hilly Echo Park neighborhood south of Sunset Boulevard, the apartment house, painted light green now as then, is split in half by a central bungalow-corridor, just like in the film. Ida's place is in the back, now protected by a screen security door.
Sylbert: It was picked because it was completely symmetrical and had a long narrow passage in the middle of it, so that you looked at it and said, "There can't be any problem here." But once you got into that narrow corridor, the opposite happened, because narrow corridors produce anxiety. And then, of course, you get to the door and the glass is broken.
2. The Mar Vista Inn
The Mar Vista Inn and Rest Home is where one of the most breathtaking car escapes in the film takes place. Gittes visits the home's elderly residents--whose names are being used without their knowledge in a land-laundering scam--and ends up fighting thug Claude Mulvihill, a former Ventura County sheriff. Evelyn Mulwray saves the day, swinging her car around the famous semicircular driveway, picking up Gittes and racing away as gunfire erupts.
In real life: The inn is actually the Eastern Star Home (11725 Sunset Blvd.), near a commercial strip in Brentwood at Barrington, and is immediately recognizable from the film. One can stroll along the famous driveway (and imagine gunmen coming up the walk) and climb the stairs to the entrance where Gittes battered Mulvihill's skull.
Sylbert: Every important building in this movie had to be white and Spanish and had to be above Gittes' eye level. And because it's above his eye level, it's automatically harder for him to go there visually. And he's a detective. And uphill is where he's going.
3. Noah Cross' Estate
Gittes has lunch here with Cross, who tells Gittes to "just find the girl."
In real life: Cross' house is actually the mountaintop William Wrigley estate and horse farm on Catalina Island.
Sylbert: When Gittes got off the boat, he walked on to that wonderful dock where you can see the Avalon ballroom in the background. And we cut to the Wrigley Ranch.
4. Echo Park Lake
Gittes and associate Duffy spot Hollis Mulwray with his "girlfriend" at the north end of Echo Park Lake. Aboard a boat, Gittes surreptitiously photographs Mulwray in a nearby canoe.
In real life: Echo Park Lake looks today exactly as it did 25 years ago. Its trademark bridge, visible in the film, is now creaky and red, leading to a damp island full of pigeons and palms. Located south of Sunset and north of the 101, it also sports a boat station that rents out pedal-boats by the hour.