The 1970s Movie That Explains 2020s America

This spring, I went to see Chinatown in a theater for the first time since its release, on June 20, 1974. The movie was headlining at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival on Hollywood Boulevard. Inside, every seat in the huge IMAX theater was taken. When Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway kissed for the first time, they filled the towering screen with every bit as much star power as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall did in Hollywood’s golden age. But the rapid descent into tragedy during the film’s second half had the audience rapt, eliciting audible gasps when the film’s director, Roman Polanski, in a cameo role, slit open the nose of the private eye J. J. Gittes (Nicholson) in one of the movie’s more notorious moments. In the scene when Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) admits that her daughter is also her sister, conceived through incest with her father, Noah Cross (played by John Huston), the auditorium was utterly silent.

I was struck by how, after all these years, Chinatown looks both of its time and ahead of it. The film’s warning that unaccountable power was shaping our lives in ways we couldn’t understand very much reflected the political sensibility of the late ’60s and early ’70s. That mood produced a torrent of transformative laws under both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon meant to intensify government oversight of business power (through environmental, consumer-protection, and workplace-safety regulation) and public oversight of government power (through campaign-finance reforms and other transparency measures). Yet the film’s tragic ending anticipated the likelihood that all of these reforms, despite the good they might do, would not remake a society in which those with wealth and power, like Cross, routinely roll over those without. The film’s script writer, Robert Towne, told me, when we spoke for my book Rock Me on the Water, that he viewed his theme as “the futility of good intentions.”

The Watergate scandal, which would ultimately force Nixon to resign the presidency, was nearing its final act when the film Chinatown was released. The film was set in 1930s Los Angeles, yet it seemed to encapsulate America’s grim circumstance in that summer of 1974, when the nation was learning that Nixon’s administration had hired goons for a scheme to sabotage its political rivals and that the president had tried to hide it by orchestrating a cover-up.

Today, Donald Trump carries echoes of Cross in the way he blends personal and public corruption—evident, most recently, in the civil judgments against him for sexual abuse and financial fraud, and his criminal conviction for a hush-money scheme (in addition to the weirdly sexualized comments over the years about his daughter Ivanka.)

But Trump’s political ascent has added an unexpected coda to the questioning of institutions that animated so much of the activism of the ’60s and the popular culture of the early ’70s. The political and artistic voices that challenged the authority of government and business in those years mostly hoped to reform those institutions, not to raze them. More effectively than any right-wing populist before him, Trump has transmuted that desire for change into a darker crusade to topple the hazily defined elites and “deep state” that he says scorn and subjugate his followers, who represent the “real America.”

Trump, too, portrays the United States as a kind of Chinatown where unaccountable power is conspiring against everyday Americans. But Trump’s message to his audience is that he can tear it down on their behalf.

The movie was immediately recognized as a landmark achievement. Chinatown is a complex story of personal and political corruption, involving murder, stolen water rights, and incest. Towne started writing Chinatown long before the Watergate scandal engulfed Nixon. Yet the atmosphere of official deceit that extended from the Vietnam War in Johnson’s presidency to the “dirty tricks” of Nixon’s permeated Towne’s story.

In Towne’s script, Chinatown was more a state of mind than a place. It symbolized the enigmatic nature of evil and the inability of even well-intentioned people (such as Nicholson’s Gittes) to pierce the hidden layers of power, the wheels within wheels turning far from view and understanding. Like America itself in the age of Vietnam and Watergate, Nicholson’s character knew less than he thought as he excavated the secrets of Dunaway’s Mulwray and her monstrous father, and he understood even less than he knew.

Like many movies from earlier eras, portions of Chinatown clang against changing sensibilities. The scene where Dunaway makes her big admission, as Nicholson repeatedly slaps her, was tough to watch then, and is tougher now. Nicholson’s mimicking of Asian accents at one point—though surely something Gittes would have done—grates, too. Polanski’s later exile, after he fled the U.S. in February 1978, having pleaded guilty to a charge of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl, cast a retrospective pall on his undeniable cinematic accomplishments.

Yet the movie transcends the limitations of its time. Chinatown’s creation unfolded in parallel with the Watergate scandal from the moment filming started, in October 1973. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, who was facing corruption allegations from his years as Maryland’s governor, resigned almost exactly as Polanski shot the movie’s first scene. What became known as the Saturday-night massacre, when Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and provoked the first real consideration of impeachment, followed just a few weeks later. The real-life conspiracy loomed over Towne’s fictional one.

“When I was shooting the film, I was amazed sometimes, listening to the news programs, by the parallels between what I was hearing and what I was shooting,” Polanski said in a press interview at the time.

The resonance was not lost on others. When Chinatown came out, Newsweek described it as a “Watergate with real water” and recognized that “this is really a story about the decadence of the 1970s.” On the Chinatown shoot, Watergate “enveloped all of us,” Hawk Koch, the film’s assistant director, told me. “We were thrilled to be doing the movie because of what it was about.” Little more than a month after the film’s release, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve the articles of impeachment that prompted Nixon’s resignation in early August.

Chinatown remains on the shortlist of greatest movies not to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; it was beaten by another classic released that year, The Godfather Part II, which explored similar themes of public and private corruption. Both were part of the early-’70s wave of socially conscious movies that revitalized Hollywood after a long period of decline. These films differed in tone, style, and message, but the most important of them shared a mission to illuminate America’s failures and delusions. Although they rarely exhibited any overt political agenda, they aligned with a progressive belief that exposing the misdeeds of business and government could produce a more democratic society that would wrest power from unaccountable elites and give average Americans a greater say.

Now the passage of half a century has produced the irony that the distrust of institutions, which took root in America after the ’60s, has been most effectively marshaled by Trump. He has shown a unique ability to channel it behind a right-wing strongman agenda that promises to smash the restraints of custom, law, and democracy to deliver “retribution” against all the shadowy elites that he says are oppressing his followers.

Only a few years earlier, there was little chance that any of the Hollywood studios would have released a film as dark as Chinatown. Although the anti-Communist blacklist that exiled some of the industry’s brightest lights had slowly lifted in the late ’50s, Hollywood still seemed shell-shocked and tentative until well into the ’60s. It responded to the sexual revolution with cotton-candy, Doris Day–style comedies that seemed lame even in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Soon, protesters were marching for civil rights and against the war, students were clashing with police on university campuses, and cities were burning with riots, yet Hollywood stubbornly looked back for inspiration, releasing a procession of World War II movies, Westerns, musicals, and, above all, gargantuan historical epics. Like the three TV networks in those years, Hollywood remained unwaveringly, even defiantly, disconnected from the social and political changes that the rising Baby Boom generation was bringing to American life.

For the film industry, the turning point came in 1967. Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dunaway and Warren Beatty gave a modern countercultural sheen to the Depression-era outlaws. Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft), scathingly captured the Boomers’ hope for a life of greater meaning and authenticity than their parents’ generation was offering (the career advice Hoffman’s character receives: “Plastics!”). Two years later, in 1969, the huge success of Easy Rider—the story of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as two nomadic, drug-dealing motorcyclists murdered by small-town rednecks—demonstrated the financial rewards of producing films that moved younger audiences.

The studios’ new appetite for contemporary films that appealed to this demographic created the economic foundation for a creative renaissance in Hollywood—and a succession of films that memorably portrayed America as adrift and rotting from within, a nation not only deceived by its leaders but deluded by its most cherished myths. So many compelling movies were released in these years that critics have called 1967–76 Hollywood’s “silver age,” after its 1938–46 golden age. Chinatown immediately claimed a top spot in the silver-age pantheon.

The idea that would grow into the movie came to Towne when he was laid up for several weeks with vertigo around Christmas 1969. He read an article in the Los Angeles Times’s Old West magazine titled “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.,” which recounted how much of the landscape described in those ’40s detective novels remained intact a quarter century later. The idea struck Towne that it would be possible to film a detective movie set in the Los Angeles of the ’30s on location around the city.

The movie’s central metaphor came from a Los Angeles Police Department vice detective who sold Towne a sheepdog named Hira. After the cop told Towne that he worked in Chinatown, the writer asked what he did there. “Probably as little as possible,” the cop said. How’s that? Towne asked. “Look, you can’t tell what’s going on, because we can’t crack the language,” the officer said. “There’s so many dialects and things like that, we can’t tell, frankly, if we’re helping prevent a crime or helping somebody commit one, and so the best thing to do is nothing.” As Towne told me, “And that was the origin of the significance of Chinatown.” In Towne’s script, Gittes repeats that line almost verbatim when Evelyn Mulwray asks him what he did in Chinatown when he worked for the DA. “As little as possible,” Nicholson replies.

Still, the words did not come easily for Towne. “No script ever drove me nuttier,” Towne later recalled. When he finally delivered a draft, in early 1973, it was a 180-page behemoth that perplexed the executives at Paramount. It also failed to satisfy Polanski, who had been hired to direct. Polanski was living in Rome and initially resisted returning to Los Angeles, where the Manson family had murdered his wife, Sharon Tate, only four years earlier. He feared returning to a city “where every street corner reminded me of tragedy.”

Polanski and Towne spent eight weeks over the spring and summer of 1973 contentiously rewriting the script. Once filming started, the movie progressed on a brisk if bumpy trajectory. Tiny and tousle-haired, Polanski was an autocrat accustomed to dictating every detail of a scene, including every aspect of an actor’s performance. Nicholson, fluid and supremely self-confident, rolled with Polanski’s style, finding his edicts more amusing than threatening. But Polanski clashed with the tightly wound Dunaway. “They were at loggerheads a lot—over anything,” recalls Anthea Sylbert, a celebrated costume designer who handled those duties on Chinatown.

The movie’s ending was the greatest point of dispute between Polanski and Towne. Towne wanted a more bittersweet ending, but Polanski insisted on rewriting the finale with a conclusion as brutal as the drop of a guillotine. Dunaway’s Mulwray is shot and killed by the police as she tries to escape with her daughter. As Gittes turns to lunge at the police lieutenant who directed the shooting, an associate pulls him away and delivers the film’s unforgettable concluding line: “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”

Gittes had precipitated the tragedy through his overconfidence. “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” Huston’s Cross had warned him earlier, “but believe me, you don’t.”

Chinatown’s final moments anticipated a world just coming into focus as the production completed. “What was happening with Evelyn Mulwray,” Towne told me, was much like “what was happening in the country. You don’t know what’s going on.” Towne painted a morally bleak world in his script for Chinatown, and Polanski made it even bleaker. Even they, though, could not have envisioned a future in which millions of Americans would willingly entrust their fate to Trump, a man as coldly amoral as Noah Cross.

Portions of this article were adapted from Rock Me on the Water: 1974—The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics, published in 2021.

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