Instead Towne had written a scene that brings them close— “There’s something black in the green part of your eye,” Gittes says; “Oh that . . . it’s a flaw in the iris”—but the scene following shows them after their clearly unfulfilling sexual encounter. “I hope it’s something I said,” Gittes says. Polanski’s urge was to gratify Evelyn, Towne pathologized; it helped him to argue his case: “I think perhaps, [Polanski] preferred identifying with the character when the woman praised him for making love well,” he said. But if they don’t have meaningful sex, Polanski returned, how could their relationship matter that much to Gittes, and therefore, to the audience?

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Good sex, which portends love, would give Gittes more to lose, a line of reasoning that reinforced Polanski’s vision of a darker ending. And here Polanski used the same argument on Towne that Towne had leveled against Polanski’s proposed rewrite of the sex scene: How Chinatown would Chinatown be if it ended, as Towne had written it, with Evelyn killing her father and their daughter escaping? It would be Chinatown enough, Towne maintained, to end, pulling back onto a wide shot of Los Angeles, to show the legacy of the water scandal corrupting the city into the present day. Having spent three years on these questions, he was indeed the expert, and having failed many times over, he knew what did and didn’t work, but Polanski, the newcomer, was an expert audience, coolly objective to Towne’s heated subjectivity; and each, armed with a mastery of story sense, could argue his case so compellingly that the glut of good sense led both writers astray.

They worked ten hours a day, Towne said, “posting [pages] on the door of the room and kept moving around the little slips figuring, you know, one way or another it would work. It was a little like monkeys on a typewriter.”

It got tense. Nicholson swooped in for dinner and brought a TV into the office to lighten the mood. It didn’t work.

Towne, turning away from the fight, would look to the window in time to see girls promenade down to the lip of Polanski’s waterfall and plop prettily into the pool.

They would fight over individual words. Polanski simply would not relent. “People can go crazy sitting with me,” he said, “because I like eliminating every unnecessary word.”

“Bob,” Polanski asked after one dispute, “do you think I’m a schmuck?”

“No,” Towne returned, “You’re a terrific .400 hitter, which means that I think you’re right less than half the time.”

As much as it provoked Towne, Polanski’s stubbornness—or determination—also moved him. The director’s vigor was partly utilitarian—“I have no time to think,” he said, “to conceive and to analyze during the period of shooting. So I have to be sure that I can rely on what is written, and if I just film it the way I anticipated, I won’t go wrong”—but as a man who had survived too much, the force of will he demonstrated in the office conveyed something of the “resilience,” Towne observed, “[that] was rooted in personal history.” For Polanski, an obsessive arguer, there was more than philosophical clarity on the far side of a debate; trouncing his interlocutor offered him a sportsman’s rush and a quick surge of mastery. “Winning an argument,” Susanna Moore said, “he would smile to himself,” and why not? The world was chaos. He had long ago given up on God and the Devil, “divine justice, or any kind of plan in existence. We are born, it means nothing, we die.” Cogent argument lent the nothingness shape, fleetingly.

After the murders the psychiatrist had warned him he would likely suffer four years of disabling grief. Then the pain would deaden and he would begin to function normally again. But the four years had passed, leaving Polanski to wonder at how an expert could be so wrong, and if he, uniquely scourged, was an aberrant case, stained forever. MM

Excerpted from The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Copyright © 2020 by Sam Wasson. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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