Sunday, December 11, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Chinatown

The Story: I've had this scene from Chinatown around for awhile and never done anything with it. But, a recent listening to the commentary track for the movie between writer Robert Towne and Steve Soderbergh put it uppermost in my mind, especially how both men cackled over the line "I don't get tough with anybody, Mr. Gittes. My lawyer does."

This is the part of the movie where things start to come crashing down for Jake, although he doesn't know it yet. All he knows is that he's gotten a little extra publicity over a matrimonial investigation he'd been doing. It shows him at his most flawed and vulnerable, and too stupid to be wary of what's going on around him. No, all he knows is that he's got a cracker-jack of a joke that he thinks is the funniest thing (forget that it's not particularly funny—just off-color—and that it's an ethnic joke, but hewing close to his own prejudices, owing to his time as a cop working a beat in L.A.'s "chinatown."

The best thing about the that it's on him.

The Set-Up: It's not often that detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) gets sucker-punched. Just earlier, he had been hired by Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), the wife of Los Angeles Water and Power's Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), to investigate an affair the man had been having with a young girl. Gittes gets the photographic evidence of the affair, but is surprised to find that the details—and the photos—have been leaked to the press. Gittes likes publicity—it's good for business—but is taken aback by the front-page news. He even gets some back-lash about it at the barber's. To mollify Gittes, his barber, Barney, tells him a story that he knows Jake will like. Cut to this scene:



Gittes comes bursting in, slapping a newspapers on his thigh.

GITTES Duffy, Walsh --

Walsh comes out of his office, Duffy out of the other one.
GITTES (continuing) Sophie --

GITTES -- go to the little girl's room for a minute.
SOPHIE But, Mr. Gittes --
GITTES (insisting) Sophie.
SOPHIE Yes, Mr. Gittes.

She gets up and leaves.
DUFFY -- uh, Jake...
GITTES Now, listen to me a minute, Walsh, I'm tryin' yo tell a story here...

GITTES there's this guy, Walsh who's tired of screwing his wife, ya understand? --
DUFFY Jake, listen -

GITTES Wait a second, Duffy, you're always in such a hurry -

GITTES ...and his friend says why not do what-the Chinese do? So he says how do the Chinese do it?

GITTES  His friend says the Chinese they screw for a while -- just listen a second, Duffy -

A stunning YOUNG WOMAN appears behind Gittes in his doorway. She's shortly joined by a small, GRAY-HAIRED MAN. They listen, unseen by Gittes.

GITTES (continuing) -- and then they stop and they read a little Confucius...
GITTES ...and they screw some more and they stop and they smoke some opium and then they go back and screw some more...
WALSH Jake...
GITTES Listen to me a second...
GITTES ...and they stop again, and they contemplate the moon or something and it makes it more exciting.
GITTES So this other guy goes home to screw his own wife...
GITTES ...and after a while he stops and gets up and goes into the other room only he reads Life Magazine and he goes back and he screws some more and suddenly says..
GITTES ...excuse me a second, honey, and he gets up and smokes a cigarette and he goes back and by this time his wife is getting sore as hell.
GITTES So he screws some more and then he gets up to look at the moon and his wife says...
GITTES 'What the hell do you think you're doing? (Gittes breaks up)... you're screwing like a Chinaman.'
Gittes hangs onto Sophie's desk laughing his ass off. The little Gray-Haired Man winces.
GITTES (Jesus, that Barney...)

When Gittes looks up he sees the Young Woman, apparently in her late twenties. She's so stunning that Gittes nearly gasps.

GITTES ...huh...
YOUNG WOMAN Do you know me?
GITTES -- well
GITTES --uh--
GITTES -- I think I -- I would've remembered.
YOUNG WOMAN Have we ever met?
GITTES Well, no.
YOUNG WOMAN That's what I thought. You see, I'm Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray -- you know, Mr. Mulwray's wife.
Gittes is staggered. He glances down at the newspaper.

GITTES Not that Mulwray?
EVELYN Yes, that Mulwray, Mr. Gittes. And since you agree with me we've never met, you must also agree that I haven't hired you to do anything - certainly not spy on my husband. 
EVELYN I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes.
EVELYN  Well, you're going to get it -
GITTES Now wait a minute, Mrs. Mulwray...

She's walked past him toward the door. He stop her.

GITTES (continuing)-- there's some misunderstanding here. It's not going to do any good to get tough with me --

Evelyn flashes a cold smile.
EVELYN I don't get tough with anybody, Mr. Gittes.

EVELYN My lawyer does.

Evelyn starts out the door and Gittes starts after her. This time he's stopped by the Gray-Haired Man who has also come out of his office and up behind him.

GRAY-HAIRED MAN Here's something for you, Mr. Gittes --

Gittes turns to be handed a thick sheaf of papers, a summons and complaint. Evelyn walks out the door.

GRAY-HAIRED MAN (continuing; pleasantly) I suppose we'll be hearing from your attorney.

Gittes stares down at the papers in his hand.


Words by Robert Towne

Pictures by John A. Alonzo and Roman Polanski

Chinatown is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

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