Actually, Jerk Week is next week, but here’s a one-day preview...
Jake Gittes in Chinatown
- Old fashioned art deco opening credits, muted trumpet plays...
- Working class husband looks at photos Gittes took of his wife having an affair. Gittes looks somewhat sympathetic, but eventually rolls his eyes: “Alright, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had them installed on Wednesday.
- [Missing lines about how you can’t kill a guy unless you’re rich.]
- Meets the fake Mrs. Mulwray, who says her husband is having an affair. Gittes says, as deadpan as possible, “No. Really.” He insists that she’s better off not knowing.
- He asks her husband’s first name. “Hollis.” Gittes immediately responds, “Water and Power??” He tries more powerfully to get her to drop it, but she won’t.
- Gittes attends a hearing about a new dam, sees Hollis Mulwray speak: He explains that he signed off on a dam that gave way. He sees the same problem here, and he won’t okay it this time. Ranchers bring their sheep into the hall to complain about how their water was stolen, accuse Mulwray of stealing their water.
- Gittes watches Mulwray drive out into a dry riverbed and look around.
- He then watches Mulwray drive out to the ocean where a metal pipe is pointing off a cliff. Gittes climbs into the pipe to hide.
- After the sun sets, Gittes suddenly has to jump out of the pipe as water pours out!
- Gittes sees that Mulwray isn’t going anywhere, so he goes back to his car, finds a flyer under the windshield: Los Angeles is dying of thirst, vote Yes!
- He opens his glove compartment, revealing a dozen stopwatches. He sets one to the current time. He sets it behind a back wheel of Mulwray’s car and leaves.
- In the morning, his operative brings him the watch, smashed and frozen at the time Mulwray pulled away. The op explains that Mulwray was there all night. Then he followed Mulwray around all day, arguing with people about the dam. He hands Gittes a fixer tray where he’s just printed photos of Mulwray arguing with someone (John Huston).
- Gittes, nattily dressed as always, shakes the fixer chemicals off his hands in disgust. “This is what you spent your day doing?? Let me explain something to you, this job requires a certain finesse.” The other op calls: “I got it, he’s found himself some cutie. They’re in Echo Park.” Gittes hangs up: “Echo Park. Water again.”
- Gittes’s op rows him around the park’s lake. Mulwray rows by with a teenage girl in a pretty dress.
- Gittes climbs the roof of Gittes’s house and gets photos of the Mulwray and the girl: She tries on a dress for him and he kisses her gently. He slips and almost gets caught, but gets away…
- Unexpectedly, the photos are on the front page of the paper the next day. As Gittes gets shaved, the barber congratulates him for being so famous. A car overheats out on the street for lack of water. A mortgage banker in the next chair is disgusted at how Gittes makes his living. Gittes responds: “Listen, pal, I make an honest living. People only come to me when they’re in a desperate situation. I help ‘em out. I don’t kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do!” The barber tries to distract him with a dirty joke about how the Chinese screw their wives.
- It apparently worked because Gittes comes back to his office and insists on telling the joke to his operatives. First he ushers his secretary to the restroom so she won’t hear it, then tells the dirty joke. His operatives, with embarrassment, point out that Faye Dunaway is standing behind him waiting for him. She reveals that she is the real Evelyn Mulwray.
- In re-watching this, I realized that Gittes isn’t actually that much of a jerk if you just look at his words and actions, but Nicholson chooses to play him with an apathetic sneer—a daring choice for an actor to make. (Actors usually try to make characters more appealing than they are on the page.)
- One thing that I’ve noticed in my own scripts is that it’s hard to write stalking scenes well. Spying on someone in real life is terrifying and tense, but onscreen it’s hard to capture that tension. To solve this problem, Towne keeps endangering Gittes. Gittes is in the pipe that the water comes out of. Later, he almost falls off the room while taking photos of Mulwray.
- This is one of those rare scripts where theme is more important than character. Few of these scenes move the character of Gittes forward, but they almost all move the theme forward. The theme revolves around a bad vs. bad dilemma: drought vs. stealing water. Every scene hits this theme hard, which is rare for a first act. Even the barbershop has a car running out of water outside.
About your observation on character vs. theme in this script: What do you make of the suggestion by Blake Snyder that a typical detective protagonist does not usually change, at least not in the big arc way we've come to expect from other dramatic movie heroes?
Btw, I'm very much looking forward to Jerk Week.
I think Snyder overstates his case. He says Gittes doesn't change, and that Garrison doesn't change in JFK, but I disagree in both cases.
But in general, he's right: the detective genre can often get away with having a hero who doesn't change. James Bond is most frequently cited as the hero who doesn't change, and he's sort of a detective. And I agree with Snyder that Woodward and Bernstein don't change much in All the President's Men.
But I think the best detective movies (like Chinatown) do find a way to give the hero a volatile reaction to the case. There's a reason why so many beloved book-series detectives have never made it to the big screen.
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