In the production notes accompanying the theatrical release of the film, director Roman Polanski describes Chinatown as "a traditional detective story with a new, modem shape." In many ways the film straddles two worlds: Chinatown not only evokes some of our most familiar ideas about the quintessentially American hard-boiled detective scenario, but also translates these ideas into something unfamiliar. Made at the time of the Watergate revelations but set in the 1930s, Chinatown’splot draws on actual scandals involving water rights and real estate scams that enabled Los Angeles to grow from a small western outpost into a metropolis. The film's use of history, however, is messy. The scandals the film portrays happened around 1905, not in the 1930s. Also, the film has a way of continually replacing its mystery. What starts as a bungled infidelity case spirals into revelations of unprecedented depravity. Private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers much more than an organized water conspiracy, and we are left to figure out the significance of Chinatown, a location made literal only in the film's final scene. The germinating idea for the film, according to screenwriter Robert Towne, came from a chance remark made by a vice cop friend about the inscrutability of Chinatown.1Towne was further inspired by a photo spread in West magazine called "Raymond Chandler's L.A.," which evoked for him not only the texture of a luxurious 1930s Los Angeles but a sense of melancholy about the degree of despoliation that gripped the Los Angeles Basin in the 1970s. Towne pitched the idea to Robert Evans, head of production at Paramount, who had turned the near-bankrupt studio around with hits such as Rosemary's Baby (1968), Love Story (1970) and The Godfather (1972).
Towne wanted to direct, attempting to parlay his dazzling reputation as a script doctor (he had ministered to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), two of the period's biggest films), but accepted $25,000 from Evans to develop the idea. Evans wanted Roman Polanski to direct because of the success of Rosemarv's Baby, which had been one of the first hits of the Evans regime at Paramount in 1968. Polanski, meanwhile, was in Rome and seemed reluctant to return to Los Angeles after the devastating murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in their Benedict Canyon home by the Manson Family in 1969. Polanski eventually accepted the project, but worried about Towne's script, as thick as a phone book, full of meandering episodes and lacking a literal scene in Chinatown -- for Towne it was meant to be a metaphor. Towne and Polanski battled furiously over minute script details, culminating in a nasty battle of wills over the film's ending. Towne wanted it so that Evelyn