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Sleuthing 'Chinatown'

Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne fought over script, yet produced a classic

July 09, 1999|PAUL IORIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The most substantial disagreement was about the ending of the film, in which Towne wanted Cross to be killed by Evelyn. Polanski insisted on a more disturbing finale in which Evelyn is shot dead in front of her young daughter, Katherine.

"We were arguing about the end and could not agree. . . . I was adamant about it," Polanski says. "I did not believe in a happy ending in this type of a movie."

With the backing of Evans, Polanski eventually won the battle over the ending. "I wrote that last scene the way it is now," Polanski says. "And I sketched the dialogue and I remember in the evening I gave Jack what I wrote down and said, 'Fashion it into your speech.' And Jack very quickly jotted a few things of his and then we shot it at literally five to midnight."

Today, Towne says Polanski "was right about the end."

Many see the tragic ending as an echo of the horror of the Manson murders on some level. That real-life tragedy also probably helped Polanski to make Gittes a credible detective. After all, the murder of Polanski's wife turned the director into a sleuth for a time; in the months before the murderers were caught, he obsessively tried to find the culprits himself.

Does Polanski think his own experience trying to track down his wife's killers informed the film?

"I can only tell you that every experience helps you with your work. This, of course, did to a certain degree," he says. "I am unable to tell you how much better the film is because I had certain things happen to me. Whatever you do, you learn. And each next movie has one layer more to make it richer." (The director has no dearth of personal tragedy from which to draw; he spent much of his early childhood in Poland escaping from the Nazis, who had killed his mother.)

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One change they agreed upon that Towne now regrets is the opening scene in which Gittes meets with his client Curly. It was originally written with Curly saying he wanted to kill his wife, and Gittes telling him he's not rich enough to get away with murder. And in fact the cut dialogue is missed under close scrutiny; when Nicholson's character says, "I only brought it up to illustrate a point," the audience now doesn't know what "point" he's referring to, because the previous piece of dialogue is gone. "That exchange I miss probably as much as any in the movie," Towne says. "Because it really foreshadows [the] 'You've got to be rich to kill somebody and get away with it' [theme]. He's really foreshadowing the whole movie in a kind of nice way."

Polanski decided to cut two other sequences altogether to help the movie's flow: In one, Harry Dean Stanton, playing a seaplane pilot who flies Gittes to Noah Cross' house, hints at Evelyn's secret past. In the other, Noah talks about his love of horse manure. "Love the smell of it," Cross says. "A lot of people do but of course they won't admit it."

By the end of the eight-week session, Polanski and Towne had created a final working script. Unfortunately, they were also no longer speaking.

"By the beginning of the shooting [in September 1973] Roman and I had argued to the point where I did not go onto the set. At that point it was just wiser to let him shoot the movie. But that was really largely because of the end scene," Towne says.

Polanski says that, contrary to rumor, "I never tried to bar [Towne] from the set. He just didn't come because we weren't on speaking terms anymore by the time I started the picture." (Towne now says that Polanski is "virtually . . . the only director that I would willingly work for as a writer.")

Dunaway's Suggestions Ignored by Polanski

For the most part, the final screenplay was shot almost exactly as it was written. "Once Roman and I agreed on the script, he held everyone's feet to the fire," Towne says. "Whatever disagreements we had, they ended when the script was written. Nobody said, 'Well, let's try it another way.' That was the way."

During the shooting, changes were frequently suggested by Dunaway--and rejected by Polanski.

"There were a lot of problems with Faye Dunaway," he says. "Faye always wanted to change something. Some nights I would . . . cross a couple words out. [She'd say]: 'Why are you taking it out? I don't want you to.' I'd say, 'OK, leave it, leave it. It's not worth the fight.' Then she would come a half an hour later: 'You know what? I thought it over, maybe you're right, we should remove it.' It was like this every day. Or she would try to add something. 'Actually I don't think it's a good idea, Faye.' She would start fighting about it. And it was like that continuously."

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