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Once Upon a Time… in Chinatown: Exclusive Excerpt From Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye

Once Upon a Time… in Chinatown: Exclusive Excerpt From Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye

The Big Goodbye Chinatown

Movie News

Was that what Polanski was trying to do? Make Chinatown his? Well, yes. It was pointless to argue the line between ego and art, but at the same time, it would be impossible, with so much invested— two careers, two memories, two passionate visions of reality—to keep personal and aesthetic needs perfectly segregated. Mutual insult was inevitable. As the writer, Towne had to dream out a script; as the director, Polanski had to wake him up. It didn’t matter how Towne felt or what a scene meant to him; the best revision would care nothing for his heart’s Chinatown, for all the thistle and eucalyptus he had once forgotten and written to reclaim. Those days were over—again.

Chinatown movie poster
The original Chinatown theatrical release poster by Jim Pearsall.

So goodbye to his endless supporting characters, goodbye to the love story of Byron Samples and Ida Samples; goodbye to Evelyn Mulwray’s affair with a mystery man and Jake Gittes’s looming jealousy, “which I felt would have been more interesting,” Towne said; goodbye to Gittes’s and Evelyn’s protracted and suspicious courtship, her violent outbursts, his many faraway mentions of Chinatown; goodbye to Julian Cross’s drug addiction; Julie’s favorite scene, containing Cross’s eerie aria to the sweet smell of horseshit; goodbye to the betrayal of Gittes by his partners, Duffy and Walsh, and his extended consultation with his lawyer, Bressler; goodbye to Escobar’s jagged history with the Cross family; goodbye to Gittes’s passion, Towne’s passion really, for Seabiscuit, intended to contain Gittes’s uptown ambitions; goodbye to Chinatown’s multiple points of view: “You [should] never show things that happen in [Gittes’s] absence,” Polanski said; goodbye to the slowly encroaching paranoia, the hurricane of subplots that swirled around Gittes; goodbye to everything that wasn’t water. Everything, Polanski decreed, had to move the water mystery forward; if they could cut it, they should cut it. But when it came to certain elements—namely, the love story (Towne wanted more scenes; Polanski, certain a good sex scene would suffice, fewer) and of course the ending—Towne and Polanski had two opposing definitions of “could.” They fought. Their arguments were painful. Each was smart enough to see the virtues in the other’s strategy; both were correct. Polanski explained he wanted Gittes and Evelyn to have satisfying sex because “it changes the rapport between them for the second part of the picture. Something serious starts between them.” But, Towne countered, if she represents Chinatown, she can’t satisfy Gittes. She’s unknowable, impossible, a mystery.

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