Could the Dark Vision of “Chinatown” Have Survived Today?


“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those words famously ended Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 homage to film noir, which stands today as a dark masterpiece. The scene in which Detective J.J. Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) watches helplessly as the evil Noah Cross (played by John Huston) literally gets away with murder and incest is a disturbing and powerful reminder that the bad guys sometimes win.

The ending encapsulates the morality of the entire movie as well as the political cynicism of its time. And yet the notorious ending would have never happened had scriptwriter Robert Towne had his away. According to the recently published Moments That Made the Movies, by esteemed critic/historian David Thomson, Towne had lobbied for an upbeat ending, but Polanski “said no, it had to be as tough as life.” So Polanski wrote the ending himself, over-ruling Towne. But remembering and watching the movie makes me wonder: if Chinatown had been released in 2013, would the bleak ending have made the final cut? I doubt it — not today, when it costs an average of $100 million to produce and market a major movie and the pressure is too great for studios to hedge their bets.

A more likely scenario: test audiences would have vomited all over the dark ending, causing the studios to panic and strong-arm a more hopeful ending — and thus hurting the integrity of the movie, as happened notably with Fatal Attraction and 28 Days Later. The downbeat ending would have been relegated to being a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, naturally costing you extra to see.

Chinatown, ranked as one of the Top 100 movies of all time by the American Film Institute, is an example of the triumph of artistic vision against the odds. Apparently (and fortunately) there were no marketing people (and yeah, I’m a marketing person) with the chutzpah to challenge the notoriously strong-willed Polanski.

Having personal vision, however dark, is the difference between producing entertainment and making art.

For more on the debate over the ending of Chinatown, read Paul Iorio’s 1999 article “Sleuthing ‘Chinatown’” from the Los Angeles Times.