A clever twist on the old film noir detective thrillers from the 1940s, Chinatown is a spellbinding mystery wrapped within a mystery. The screenplay was developed by Robert Towne, who became intrigued with the hidden and archaic disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of the historical jockeying concerned the securing of water rights in the Owens Valley, a dusty enclave near Bishop, California.
The narrative begins with an attractive woman who identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray. She hires private investigator J.J. Gittes to ‘tail’ her husband, Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes agrees and over the next 24 hours he follows Mulwray, shoots photographs of him with a young woman, which then appear on the front page of the following day’s paper. From there, it gets quite sticky. There appear to be two Evelyn Mulwrays. And Gittes has a strong hunch that he has been set up. Still, he is not sure who is setting whom up. The next day the water commissioner (Hollis Mulwray) is fished out, drowned, from a freshwater reservoir.
From there, the thickening plot hardens! Potential witnesses turn up dead. Phone calls draw the curious away from where their questions might be answered. Good people get shot. Bad people get away. And the water comes south….for a while.
What is especially intriguing about Chinatown is how Robert Towne took an urban myth about the founding of Los Angeles on water stolen from the Owens River Valley and made it really resonate. Chinatown isn’t a docudrama. It’s fiction. The water project it depicts isn’t the construction of the Los Angeles Aquaduct, engineered by William Mulholland before the first World War. Chinatown is set in 1938, not 1905. The Mulholland-like figure – Hollis Mulwray – isn’t the chief architect of the project, but rather its strongest opponent, which is why he must be discredited and murdered. Still, the echoes between the historical record and the myth fabricated by Towne have led many viewers to regard Chinatown not only as docudrama, but as truth – the real secret history of how Los Angeles got its water. What’s more, it has become a ruling metaphor of the non-fictional critiques of Los Angeles development.
Karl Marx once noted that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Mr. Towne must have taken notes.