Friday June 16, 2023
Its inalienable essence
One of the great takeaways from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood” is just how much Roman Polanski meant to the script. Writing credits are really kind of nuts in Hollywood. People who work on a thing aren't credited, people who don't work on the thing wind up with screenwriting Oscars. According to Wasson, the screenwriter for “Chinatown, Robert Towne, ”secretly employed an old college friend named Edward Taylor as his uncredited writing partner for more than 40 years,“ including on ”Chinatown.“ But their draft went on and on and on. What Towne and Taylor couldn't do is kill their little darlings. That was up to Polanski.
The new ”Polanski“ draft was focused on its inalienable essence: Jake Gittes. He was in every scene. True to convention, the audience would never know any more or any less than their screen detective but would uncover the mystery as he did, clue by clue.
Additionally Polanski had tossed out Evelyn and Escobar's affair along with their tangential subplot; he cut many of Gittes's lowlife vulgarisms and class consciousness, reviving in their place certain hard-boiled characteristics common to the genre; he removed scenes with Cross's goons and long expositional dialogues between Evelyn and Gittes—strewn confusingly with red herrings and dense conspiratorial fogs right out of The Big Sleep. Where once the character of Byron Samples—also cut completely from the new draft—accompanied Gittes on his investigation of the retirement home, now Evelyn goes with Gittes; the change enhances their complicity, their love story, and leads nicely to bed. In Towne's first drafts, Gittes's motivation is blurred in the smokescreen of twisty misdirects. After Evelyn drops the lawsuit against him, what does the water scandal matter to him personally? In the Polanski rewrite, an answer is offered as an outraged Gittes, in the barbershop, defends the integrity of his profession, an indication that for all his sleazy divorce work, a nobler detective is waiting to emerge. The water mystery is his opportunity to do good—which, in a flourish of chilling irony, he will blunder by hindering rather than helping, near the climax of the Polanski revision. In the original, Evelyn masterminded the showdown with her father; in the Polanski revision, Gittes instigates it, creating a new scene that further demonizes Cross. Rather than tremble and repent when confronted or wither under a narcotic haze, as he did in Towne's early drafts, Cross stands firm and fully justifies his crimes: ”You see, Mr. Gittes,“ he growls in the new scene, ”most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.“
It makes sense that Polanski more than Towne would come up with that line. Polanski grew up Jewish in Nazi-occupied Europe. He knew it firsthand.
”Chinatown" wound up being nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It won one: Towne.