In 1971, producer Robert Evans contacted screenwriter Robert Towne, because he had problems transforming The Great Gatsby into a film. During lunch he heard Towne's idea for another screenplay, Chinatown. Evans liked the idea and gave Towne money to produce an outline.

Towne wrote the screenplay with Jack Nicholson in mind (Towne and Nicholson worked together in The Last Detail). Roman Polanski found out about the script through Nicholson, with whom he had been planning to make a film once they found the right property. Producer Robert Evans wanted Polanski to direct as well, because he wanted a European vision of the United States, which he thought would be darker and more cynical. Polanski, just a few years removed from the murder of his wife in Los Angeles, was initially reluctant to return to Hollywood, but was persuaded to accept the project based on the strength of the script.

The original script was 200 pages. Polanski rewrote it, eliminating Gittes' voiceover narration, and structured the movie so the audience discovered the clues at the same time Gittes did, thus making the script clearer and tougher. Evans, the producer, intended the screenplay to have a happy ending with Cross dying and Evelyn Mulwray surviving. Evans and Polanski argued over it, with Polanski insisting on a tragic end. The two parted ways due to the dispute and Polanski wrote the final scene just a few days before it was shot.

Chinatown is set in 1937 and portrays the manipulation of a critical municipal resource—water—by a cadre of shadowy oligarchs. It was the first part of Towne's planned trilogy about the character J.J. Gittes. The second part, The Two Jakes, was released in 1990 under the direction of Jack Nicholson. The second film's commercial and critical failure scuttled plans to make the third part, Gittes vs. Gittes, The characters Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross are both references to William Mulholland (1855–1935) the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

Robert Evans first wanted Ali MacGraw, his then wife, for the role of Evelyn Cross Mulwray. As the film went into production, MacGraw had left Evans for Steve McQueen. The role was then offered to Jane Fonda, who turned it down. Polanski came with Faye Dunaway. Both Polanski and Evans knew that Dunaway could be difficult to work with, but she was consired so powerful that she got the role. It was also Polanski who came with John Huston for the role of Noah Cross. Polanski himself appears in a cameo as the gangster who cuts Gittes' nose.

United States 1974

Directed by

Roy Jenson
James Hong
Beulah Quo
Noble Willingham
George Justin
Jesse Vint