Chinatown (1973) Screenplay Theme Analysis

Chinatown (1974), written by Robert Towne, is generally considered one of the best screenplays ever. The script (I read the October 9th, 1973 “3rd Draft” version) is 127 pages.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: October 9th, 1973 3rd Draft
  • Type: Spec
  • Page Count: 127

There are already so many analyses of the script, movie, cinematography, and so forth, that there really is not much use in me trying to analyze the whole script. Likewise, all of the major themes have been analyzed in detail and a quick search on the web will produce a boatload of results.

Instead I will analyze two themes that jumped out to me when I read the script. I’ll end the article with a couple of questions.

Page 65-66 – Horseshit

A very brief background: Gittes, a private investigator, is trying to learn more about a case, and he goes to meet a rich businessman called Cross. The scene is somewhat grotesque: In it, Cross both shows and tells his enjoyment of the smell of horse manure. The scene ends in a little monologue by Cross:

Perhaps this preoccupation with horseshit may seem a little perverse, but I ask you to remember this — one way or another, it’s what I’ve dealt in all my life. Let’s have breakfast.

The symbolism – to me – is pretty obvious, remembering that this is our formal introduction to Cross: He is in a dirty business. It also predicts how much deeper the investigation will go in the second half of the script. Double (probably like quadruple) entendre. Why did Mr. Towne dedicate a page of back-and-forth dialogue almost exactly at the halfway point of the script to lead up to this little speech from Cross? He could have easily just had Cross say, “Water is a very dirty business,” or because both saltwater and freshwater are central to the script, he could have made some joke about saltwater being deadly. The answer is that there’s probably more to it. One thought: Horseshit could also stand as Cross’ opinion of Gittes (Hence why he says it twice at the beginning of the scene and we only get the cue that he is pointing to actual horseshit the second time). What about the farmers (who Cross doesn’t love) who are on horseback later in the screenplay? What about the kid earlier in the script who was on a horse?

Using symbolism is writing is always tricky. There’s a lot to investigate in just this scene and I hope to get back to it in the future.

Page 121 – That’s where life begins

Here’s the quote from Cross:

That’s where life begins… marshes, sloughs, tide-pools… he (Mulwray) was fascinated by them… you know when we first came out here he figured that if you dumped water onto the desert sand it would percolate down to the bedrock and stay there instead of evaporating the way it does in most reservoirs. You only lose 20% instead of 70 or 80. He made this city.

While reading, I marked this quote as important and having clearly a deeper meaning, but should have wrote down my thoughts at the time! Here’s my initial impression: marshes, sloughs and tidepools are all natural environmentally-normal? occurrences. A person (Mulwray) who is interested in them is a curious, upbeat, type of guy who respects the enviorment and community. The flipside? Well, just having the idea of dumping water in desert does not make you a bad person. After all, no thought is agains the law. But doing the deed, as is Cross’ plan, is… and that’s what makes Cross the villain. That’s just my guess from 20,000 feet. Though it could be the opposite: Mulwray’s idea was genius and Cross instead wants to do the inverse by keeping the farmland in the valley for himself. Or it could mean something totally different altogether.