At the time of filming, Jack Nicholson had just embarked on his longstanding relationship with Anjelica Huston. This made his scenes with her father, John Huston, rather uncomfortable, especially as the only time Anjelica was on set was the day they were filming the scene where Noah Cross interrogates Nicholson's character with "Mr. Gittes...do you sleep with my daughter?"
After several takes that never looked quite right, Faye Dunaway got annoyed and told Jack Nicholson to actually slap her. He did and felt very guilty for it, despite it being Dunaway's decision. The shot made it into the movie.
The screenplay is now regarded as being one of the most perfect screenplays ever written and is now a main teaching point in screenwriting seminars and classes everywhere.
Roman Polanski said that in staying true to the tradition of Raymond Chandler's detective stories, he shot the whole movie from the perspective of the main character.
The scene where Roman Polanski slits Jack Nicholson's nose was extremely complex to film, and the two men involved got so tired of explaining how it was done (by using a specially-constructed knife with a short hinge that would be safe as long as it was handled VERY carefully) that they began to claim Nicholson's nose was actually cut.
Faye Dunaway and Roman Polanski were notorious for their on-set arguments. During filming, Polanski pulled out some strands of Dunaway's hair. On another occasion, when she asked him what her character's motivation was, he exploded, "Just say the f**king words, your salary is your motivation!"
Screenwriter Robert Towne was originally offered $125,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), but Towne felt he couldn't better the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and accepted $25,000 to write his own story, "Chinatown", instead.
At one point, Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson's portable television with a mop. Nicholson used the television to watch Los Angeles Lakers' basketball games and kept stalling shooting.
This was the final film that Roman Polanski made in the United States, as he fled to France in February 1978, shortly before he was due to be sentenced for unlawful sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old girl named Samantha Gailey. He has avoided visiting any country likely to extradite him to the U.S. since then.
Roman Polanski eliminated Jake Gittes' voice-over narration, which was written in the script, and filmed the movie so that the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did.
The film's enigmatic title is a metaphor for moral corruption by unseen forces. Throughout the film, Jake Gittes refers to his time as a police officer in Chinatown, where "you can't always tell what's going on." In Hollywood, the movie's line, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown", has become a mantra for those who have been burned or snubbed by the entertainment industry, the implication being that it's better to "let it go" than make an issue of it, because that's just how the industry works.
At the end of the film, when Jake says "give me five minutes", there are exactly five minutes left in the film. This was actually unintentional.
Roman Polanski had been planning to make a film with Jack Nicholson, but hadn't found the right property yet. He actively pursued the script when he learned about it. As luck would have it, Polanski was also producer Robert Evans' first choice for director, as he wanted a European vision of the United States, which he felt would be darker, and a little more cynical.
Despite lobbying Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson for the chance to direct the film, when he finally landed the gig Roman Polanski started having second thoughts. The thought of returning to Los Angeles, where his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered four years earlier, was too overwhelming for him.
The Van der Lip Dam disaster is a reference to the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, forty miles northwest of Los Angeles, which had been designed by self-educated engineer William Mulholland. The consequent flooding killed at least four hundred fifty people, a loss of life that remains second only to that from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire in California's history.
Although he liked the idea of doing a cameo in the film as the hood who slits Jack Nicholson's nose, Roman Polanski was less thrilled about having to have his long hair cut off for his brief appearance in the film.
Faye Dunaway's distinctive look was inspired by Roman Polanski's memories of his mother, who, in the pre-World War II-era, would fashionably wear penciled-on eyebrows, and have her lipstick shaped in the form of a Cupid's bow.
According to Roman Polanski's autobiography, he was outraged when he got the first batch of dailies back from the lab. Due to the success of The Godfather (1972), producer Robert Evans had ordered the lab to give this movie a reddish look. Polanski demanded that the film be corrected.
To emphasize the point that the audience is seeing everything from Gittes' perspective, Roman Polanski often put the camera behind Jack Nicholson, so the audience sees his back and shoulders.
There is a rumor that this was the first part of a planned trilogy written by Robert Towne about J.J. "Jake" Gittes and Los Angeles. The second part, The Two Jakes (1990), was directed by Jack Nicholson. The supposed third part never existed, as later confirmed by the writer; however, certain elements and details of the story (a corrupt company called Cloverleaf tries to buy up all public transportation in order to replace it with freeways) would later end up in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which was a film-noir spoof/homage of Chinatown.
The role of Evelyn Mulwray was originally intended for the producer's wife, Ali MacGraw, but she lost the role when she divorced him for Steve McQueen.
Robert Towne said that John Huston was, after Jack Nicholson, the second-best-cast actor in the film, and that he made Cross menacing, through his courtly performance.
Although Los Angeles is given its modern pronunciation in the film ("an-je-les"), prior to the mid-1950s, residents said the city's name with a hard G ("angle-es").
Cross' mispronunciation of Gittes' last name wasn't in the script. John Huston couldn't get it right, so Roman Polanski had Jack Nicholson add a line trying to correct him, and after that just let it go.
Roman Polanski forced Robert Towne to sit and rewrite the script with him. Towne was so opposed to this idea that he would argue with Polanski non-stop.
Screenwriter Robert Towne based his famous exchange, Evelyn: "What did you do in Chinatown?" Jake:"As little as possible", on a joke an LAPD officer friend told him. This was because there were so many different Chinese dialects floating around that an Anglo cop would only get himself into trouble by misinterpreting anything said by the Chinese residents.
For the first screening, Roman Polanski took his old friend, composer Bronislau Kaper. Producer Robert Evans afterwards asked Kaper what he thought of the picture, to which Kaper replied, "It's a great film, but you have to change the music."
The orange grove scene was filmed at Triad Ranch, 3240 Sunset Valley Road, Moorpark, California, the house of Walter Brennan, John Huston's friend.
Among the items in Ida Sessions' pocketbook, which Jake Gittes rummages through, are a two dollar bill and a Screen Actors Guild membership card.
Roman Polanski wanted William A. Fraker as his cinematographer, having successfully collaborated with him on "Rosemary's Baby (1968)." This notion was blocked by producer Robert Evans, who felt that the pairing of the two would create too powerful a bond, making his life as a producer more difficult.
The movie's line "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown." was voted as the #74 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
Jerry Goldsmith's music for this movie, written and recorded in just 10 days, remains the all-time favorite score of director David Lynch.
The name of Water and Power engineer Hollis Mulwray is likely a play on the real-life head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland (1855-1935). A man obsessed with an engineering challenge of epic proportions, Mulholland brought the Owens River to Los Angeles, which turned the previously lush Owens Valley into a virtual desert, through a combination of determination and deceit.
The film correctly used the 1930s' pronunciation of "Alameda," the main street leading into Chinatown. Now pronounced as Al-a-MEAD-a, old timers still pronounce it as it was in the film, Al-a-MAID-a.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez was fired soon after production began. His classical style did not match the naturalistic style Polanski wanted for the film, and he proved to be too time-consuming. Polanski had to find a replacement in only a few days and chose John A. Alonzo. As David Fincher and Robert Towne state in their DVD commentary, two scenes shot by Cortez are in the film: the orange grove fight with the farmers (but not the following porch scene with Evelyn) and the drive back to Los Angeles at sunset.
Phillip Lambro was originally hired to write the film's music score, but it was rejected at the last minute by producer Robert Evans leaving Jerry Goldsmith only 10 days to write and record a new score. However, when it was time to put together a trailer for the film, the studio's marketing department decided that Goldsmith's new score wasn't suitable. Lambro was asked if cues from his original score could be used instead. In exchange for allowing his music to be used for the trailer, Lambro asked to retain the publishing rights to his own score. Paramount Pictures agreed on the condition that, if the music was ever released commercially, Lambro could not use the title "Chinatown." An album with Lambro's original rejected score was finally released in 2012 under the title "Los Angeles, 1937".
The El Macondo Apartments are named after the imaginary city in Gabriel García Márquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude".
The only scene in the film in which Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston appear together is the last scene in the film. This is also the only scene in the movie that was set and filmed in Chinatown.
Rance Howard, who plays the role of an angry farmer at the council meeting, is the father of famed actor and director Ron Howard and the grandfather of Bryce Dallas Howard.
Roman Polanski learned of the script through Jack Nicholson with whom he had been searching for a suitable joint project.
In June 2008, ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Mystery."
L.A.'s original Chinatown was demolished between 1933 and 1936 to make way for Union Station. The current Chinatown, located a few blocks away, opened in 1938. So the only time L.A. had no official Chinatown was 1937, the year in which this film is set.
The riverbed, which is referred to in the movie, is now where the Burbank and Pasadena freeways sit, leading into the more original neighborhoods of the town of Burbank.
After Ali MacGraw was discarded, Robert Evans wanted Jane Fonda for the part of Evelyn Mulwray, while Roman Polanski insisted upon Faye Dunaway. Faye Dunaway was Polanski's vision for the character Evelyn Mulwray in the 1930s, since his mother used to have pencil eyebrows and wore red lipstick in the shape of Cupid's bow, as depicted in Dunaway's make-up.
Peter Bogdanovich turned down the chance to direct. He later regretted his decision.
Robert Evans had recently vacated his post as head of Paramount Pictures. This was his first film as a hands-on producer.
In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #21 Greatest Movie of All Time.
Jack Nicholson had the name "Jake Gittes" written on the shirts he used in the movie. Though this is not prominently shown, it was done so Nicholson could enter into character more easily.
There were many rumors circulating about Faye Dunaway's diva-like behavior during the making of the film. One such was that she refused to flush her own toilet and expected her assistants to do it for her. On another occasion, while filming a scene in a car, Roman Polanski refused to let her urinate so he could finish the scene. She then urinated in a cup and threw it in his face.
When Journalist Tom Burke interviewed the film's director, Roman Polanski, for a profile on him for Rolling Stone magazine, Polanski arranged for the not-yet-released film to be secretly screened for Burke without the studio's permission, even though no music score had yet been recorded for the soundtrack and other glitches had yet to be corrected. Shortly after the beginning of this screening, at which Polanski was not present, Burke realized he had to urinate, yet so engrossed was he in the film that he refused to pause the screening, but saw the film through to the end before relieving himself. When he spoke to Polanski later about the experience, the director seemed to delight in this fact more than any other, convinced that, since Burke had found himself unable to stop watching the film even to answer the call of nature, he had made what he called an "audience movie."
Noah Cross is a reference to the Biblical character of Noah with all of the associated connotations about water.
This film was selected into the National Film Registry in 1991 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Robert Evans deliberately pursued Roman Polanski to direct, as he knew he was coming off the back of two major flops, Macbeth (1971) and the lesser known What? (1972), and that he would be very keen to impress and would make every effort to ensure that this was a hit, which it was.
When Gittes follows Hollis Mulray to the cliff top (where he leaves a watch under his tire) he passes a bar with an open door. One can hear "I Can't Get Started" by Bunny Berigan, the hit of August 1937.
The movie's final line "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown" was voted as the #71 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
John Huston was offered the chance to direct this movie, but he decided that he did not want to.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
The film cast includes four Oscar winners: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and Roman Polanski; and three Oscar nominees: Burt Young, Diane Ladd, and Joe Mantell.
The film was part of a cycle of 1970s conspiracy movies. These included: Executive Action (1973), Klute (1971), Chinatown (1974), Cutter's Way (1981), Telefon (1977), Winter Kills (1979), The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Domino Principle (1977), Good Guys Wear Black (1978), Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), Hangar 18 (1980), Capricorn One (1977), and All the President's Men (1976). Blow Out (1981) would follow in the early 1980s.
When J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) asks Mr. Palmer (John Rogers), director of the Mar Vista Rest Home, whether they "accept people of the Jewish persuasion" and is assured that they do not, there is a mirror in the next room, over the left shoulder of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), in the shape of an inverted pentagram, considered by some to be a symbol of evil. The director, Roman Polanski, was raised Jewish and his mother died at Auschwitz.
Anjelica Huston who was dating Jack Nicholson and was the daughter of John Huston brought her sister Allegra Huston to the set to meet Jack. In the book she wrote Allegra said that Anjelica kept her away from their father since he was playing the bad guy and she was only about 10.
In his 2020 nonfiction book "The Big Goodbye: 'Chinatown' and the Last Years of Hollywood," author Sam Wasson discloses that for more than 40 years, revered screenwriter Robert Towne secretly employed Edward Taylor, an old college friend, as his uncredited writing partner, because Towne realized he himself was an excruciatingly slow writer and Taylor "would help," especially as he labored under intense pressure to complete Chinatown (1974).
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Bruce Glover who plays Duffy, one of Jake's colleagues in the agency, played Mr. Wint in the 1971 Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971). He is also the father of actor and author Crispin Glover.
The black and white (good and evil) scene of Evelyn wearing a black dress is evocative of Mike Nichols's scene in The Graduate (1967), with Mrs. Robinson wearing a black dress, while leaning against a stark white wall, as her daughter Elaine finds out about her mother's affair with Benjamin.
Tough-guy hired-gun character Mulvihill was likely named after the associate producer of Jack Nicholson's film The Last Detail (1973), Charles Mulvehill.
Included among the American Film Institute's 2001 list of the Top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.
Three lines are repeated twice at seperate intervals. "I think I would've remembered", "It's an innocent question", and "As little as possible". "My daughter/my sister" is repeated several times at once.