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39 Things We Learned from Robert Towne’s and David Fincher’s ‘Chinatown’ Commentary

“They did this in one take, which I hate.”
Hulu Chinatown
By  · Published on July 13th, 2016

David Fincher loves Chinatown.

Of course, anyone who appreciates brilliant filmmaking should feel the same way, especially if they also appreciate themes of human nature drenched in cynicism. The film is easily one of the smartest, most beautiful gut-punches to come out of Hollywood in the ’70s (or any other decade for that matter), and it remains a powerful commentary on greed, bureaucracy, and the futility of good intentions.

Fincher sat down with Robert Towne, the film’s writer, for a commentary, and it makes for a fascinating look at a classic film.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Chinatown (1974)

Commentators: Robert Towne (writer), David Fincher (fan)

1. Fincher loves how sinister the black & white logo looks as it suggests something monstrous like King Kong, but when he asks if it was intentional Towne says its effect was just the “luck of the draw.”

2. The first time Towne saw the completed film was at an advance screening for Variety and Hollywood Reporter critics, “and up to that point, I, like most of us, thought the film was a disaster.”

3. The film’s original score was lost for various reasons ‐ Towne doesn’t even recall who had composed it ‐ and Jerry Goldsmith came in last minute to compose a new one in nine days. “I think this is the pinnacle,” says Fincher. “I know it was a pinch-hit, but man, it is as close to the designated hitter hitting a home run.”

4. Producer Robert Evans suggested the trumpet as the recurring instrument for its “mournful, lonely” quality.

5. “How great is Burt Young,” asks Fincher rhetorically before asking how much luck plays into casting. Towne says the film was lucky in every regard, both behind and in front of the camera. “At critical junctures, people made their entrances and exits in just the right way.”

6. “I love the name Ida Sessions,” says Fincher. “There’s something about the name that just feels like voice-over talent.” Towne says he picked the surnames out of “obscure tomes” from the past because he liked the sound.

7. Fincher loves the detail of JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) knowing the name of the man who runs Los Angeles’ Department of Water & Power and suggests that people today would have no clue even if you held a gun to their head. Towne points out that back then water was far more on the minds of people than it is today.

8. Fincher points out Rance Howard as the sheep herder, saying he loves how much he resembles Ron Howard.

9. The “swayback horse” that the child is riding is a detail specified in Towne’s script. Fincher loves it.

10. Fincher recalls scouting a commercial once in LA and seeing the small hamburger stand glimpsed around the ten-minute mark and realizing it was the one from the film. “I went in because I wanted to have a hamburger from the hamburger stand that was in Chinatown, and I thought ‘I’m the only one who knows this,’ but the walls are literally covered with clippings saying ‘Chinatown was filmed here.’” Towne one-ups him by remembering the place from his childhood. “It’s now a biker place.”

11. The visual motifs have always fascinated and impressed Fincher as being “unbelievably relentless and perfectly formulated.” He says it’s visible in “a running gag of two objects that are similar, one of which is flawed,” with examples being the watches, the glasses, the sunglasses, the headlights, the nostrils, and he recalls asking Towne previously how intentional they were. “Was that ever discussed?” he asks again. “No,” says Towne, “and I was as surprised as anybody when it was pointed out to me.” Fincher laughs.

12. Fincher notes that this is “the defining” Jack Nicholson role as one that sees his outrage and character competing with a certain helplessness. “It makes complete sense,” says Towne. “Jack’s capacity for indignation is something of which I was well aware.” He recalls grabbing lunch with Nicholson once at a diner called Poopies (sp?), well before any of them were successful. “Mrs. Poopy got mad at him for only having coffee, and he took a napkin holder and threw it into her case of goodies. He said ‘One more word out of you and I’ll kick your pastry tray.’” This entire commentary is worth it to hear Fincher say “her poopy case.”

13. Towne created the character of Gittes as a response to the classic private eyes in films who wouldn’t do certain cases due to a strict moral code. “I wanted to give him some underlying sense of morality that would respond with absolute horror.” This is pre-World War II he reminds us saying the kind of evil represented by Noah Cross (John Huston) was something Gittes just wasn’t used to dealing with.

14. Fincher loves the bit where Gittes makes a crack at a guy’s reading ability and says it’s an insult he aims toward studio executives all the time.

15. “The choice of a Mexican here was deliberate,” says Towne referring to Det. Escobar, “because there was a suggestion that when the dam broke it was Mexicans who were killed, and at one point there was mention of that, that Escobar did not regret the death of Mulwray.”

16. Fincher points out an added bonus to the hats saying that while you may not notice head tilts from behind normally it’s impossible to miss when characters are wearing hats with brims. “It’s almost as though you can see their face without seeing their face. You get the attitude.” Towne adds that Nicholson felt the hat was ”an integral part of his performance.” Fincher agrees saying “there’s a reason that’s the poster.”

17. “Did you know that Roman was going to play this,” asks Fincher, “that you were going to have a Polish thug?” Towne didn’t know until Polanski told him at which point they added the line “Where did you get the midget?”

18. Fincher loves the nostril slice both as a practical effect and for its narrative effect. “I don’t think I’m going too far to say it’s the greatest running gag in movie history.”

19. The area around the Biltmore Hotel is one of Fincher’s favorite Los Angeles locations. “You get this beautiful light where the light bounces off the buildings, and it’s incredibly sumptuous.” He filmed a small part of Fight Club there.

20. Regarding Huston, Towne says “I don’t know if anybody else in kind of a grandfatherly, magnanimous way could suggest pure evil.” Fincher adds that there’s a “real humanity that he has as a villain because he does seem like a pathetic grandfather.”

21. Fincher thinks the 57:12 mark is “one of the most beautiful frames I’ve ever seen.”

22. The Albacore Club is a riff on the Tuna Club. Obviously.

23. Fincher is amazed and impressed that Nicholson and Huston actually eat during the scene where they first meet. He says you never see it in movies “because people think that it’s unsavory or unattractive in some way. He’s gonna talk as he chews, and it’s all these things that people try to avoid in movies at all cost.” He’s right, but to be fair, Polanski captures this conversation in one take while some directors *cough* would have their actors eating more and more food until they get the scene just right over multiple ones.

24. Towne recalls arguments before filming started regarding the intended aspect ratio of either 1:85 or 2:25 with Polanski insisting on the latter. “I think that dictated a lot of the storytelling in a good way.”

25. Fincher realizes for the first time that the crutch being used to hit Nicholson with is a rubber prop. His excitement over the violence deflates slightly, but he still enjoys it.

26. The Mar Vista Rest Home is now the Archer School for Girls. “That was one of the reasons I was actually interested in my daughter going there, because I love this building so much.”

27. Fincher loves the scene where Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) investigate the rest home pretending to be potential customers. “It is narrative and character absolutely wed.”

28. “She’s not a femme fatale,” says Fincher about Dunaway’s character and performance. “She’s a woman of mystery, but you never get the feeling that there’s a bottom to it. You almost don’t want her to tell you what it is that’s troubling her. She never plays anything obvious.”

29. Fincher thinks Goldsmith “hits this moment a little early” with his music cue at 1:23:11.

30. “Can you imagine the studio notes today,” asks Fincher regarding the scene of Gittes and Evelyn conversing in bed after sex. “A post-coital scene where they’re smoking, first of all they’d say you gotta take that out. Second of all, when she asks her question and the look that he gives her is so fantastic that it’s leading to something so revelatory, and you want it so bad, and then she says “Dead?” and then the phone rings ‐ we’d still be re-writing this script if you turned this in last year because they’d be saying you have to answer that question.” Towne gives full credit to Evans who acted as a gateway, “and Evans never asked those questions.”

31. Fincher refers to Dunaway, specifically during the period between Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown, as “one of the two most beautiful women in the world.” He does not identify the second. “She is unbelievably beautiful at the same time she’s just a little bit scary,” he says regarding her pure beauty combined with plucked eyebrows, white skin, and degree of control. “It’s the facial equivalent of bulimia.”

32. Towne interviewed retired cops from the period, and one of the questions he asked was how they used to tail people. That’s where the idea of smashing the tail light originated.

33. Fincher has been trying to find the real-world location of Evelyn’s secret bungalow but has so far come up empty.

34. Fincher points out where Nicholson steps into the shadow of the camera at the 1:49:36 mark, but rather than call it out as a goof he praises the take. “As he inches forward he’s going to continue to go into it which is so nice, it’s like he doesn’t want to descend into darkness, he doesn’t want to, and he can’t get out of it. I’m sure there’s a take where he was lit properly, but it probably wasn’t as good as this.”

35. Fincher points out Polanski’s use of framing in the scene where Gittes has knocked Evelyn to the floor causing her to finally reveal the truth. She’s shown to the right side of the frame staring up while the next shot is of him, also at the right, but looking through an empty frame towards where she’s sitting. “You are seeing a revelation. He has all the space in front of him, and she has no space in front of her. She’s been trapped. The psychology of that is so brilliant.”

36. The shot around the 2:02:25 mark is the frame/image used for the poster. “You can tell the edge lighting,” says Fincher,, “because no where else in the movie is it coming from low and to the right.”

37. Fincher doesn’t love the film ending in Chinatown and says “it’s the cause of much discussion.” He’s of the belief that it’s not a place you could ever actually go to ‐ in the context of the film ‐ because it’s a state of mind.

38. “There’s no way that shot hits her in the eye at that distance with that gun by the way,” says Fincher, “not a chance, a .38 snub-nose. I don’t even think you could hit that lit building. But, it’s Chinatown.”

39. Bruce Glover is Crispin Glover’s father?! This seems so obvious in retrospect.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Not everyone became Jack Nicholson after this.”

“The behavior that the watcher is watching is made all the more peculiar because that person is also trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“A truly great movie is a group of people crossing over and achieving their potential in exactly the right three month period for it to be recorded.”

“Roman was someone who believed in the power of shoe leather.”

“It should be pointed out that James Hong is terrific.”

“This is one of those scenes where you are just fucked.”

“I’d of re-shot that scene.”

E.T. has a fairly terrifying head of lettuce when the kid comes down the stairs, but I think this is the most terrifying head of lettuce in the history of cinema.”

“This is movie violence as good as it gets, because it is literally changing her performance.”

“I’d of re-done this last shot because I think people are looking a little like extras. I’d have like 35 takes of this so that they were pretty bored of it.”

Final Thoughts

Fincher loves Chinatown. His affection for the film, both as a fan and as a director himself, is evident throughout the commentary as he praises visuals, performances, set dressing, Towne’s script, and more. He makes plenty of observations, some rather detailed, on elements of narrative and shot structure, and while I mentioned a few above there’s more to enjoy making the track well worth a listen. Unsurprisingly, and sometimes hilariously, Fincher can’t help being Fincher and proceeds to point out errors and scenes that he would have re-shot had he been the director.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Chinatown [Blu-ray]

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.