Screenwriter Robert Towne has a distinctive, ironic, and rather leisurely descriptive style. Nonetheless, he condenses a great deal of information into a few lines on this first page of a late draft of Chinatown. The script opens with close-ups of a series of snapshots of a man and woman making love. These visuals are accompanied by the sound of anguished moans and a male voice crying out, "Oh, no!" At this point, we cut to the following scene:
INT. GITTES' OFFICE
CURLY drops the photos on Gittes' desk. Curly towers over GITTES and sweats heavily through his workman's clothes, his breathing progressively more labored. A drop plunks on Gittes' shiny desk top.
Gittes notes it. A fan whirrs overhead. Gittes glances up at it. He looks cool and brisk in a white linen suit despite the heat. Never taking his eyes off Curly, he lights a cigarette using a lighter with a "nail" on his desk.4
This first glimpse of Gittes is of a private eye who is also very much the successful small businessman, as evidenced by the shiny desk, the white linen suit, and his special lighter. He is alert to his distraught client's every move, because Curly is very large and very upset, a dangerous combination in a nicely furnished new office.
The next lines describe the sobbing Curly, who rams his fist into the wall and kicks a wastebasket. The scene goes on:
Curly slides on into the blinds and sinks to his knees. He is weeping heavily now, and is in such pain that he actually bites into the blinds. Gittes doesn't move from his chair.
All right, enough is enough—you can't eat the Venetian blinds, Curly. I just had 'em installed on Wednesday.
Curly responds slowly, rising to his feet, crying. Gittes reaches into his desk and pulls out a shot glass, quickly selects a cheaper bottle of bourbon from several fifths of more expensive whiskeys.
Gittes pours a large shot. He shoves the glass across the desk toward Curly.
Curly is not just comic relief in the film but a secondary character who plays an important role in the last third of Chinatown. The emotionalism and lack of guile we see here and in the rest of this first scene make him an ideal target for Gittes' manipulation later, when the detective desperately needs help in arranging a getaway.
Most fiction films, comedy as well as drama, tend to portray a particular character (or characters) in a challenging situation: something unexpected happens to someone—how does that person react? Does he or she struggle to change or, instead, try to turn away from what has happened, to find a way back to things as they were? If the main character engages us, that struggle—which is, in essence, the story of the film—will most likely engage us, too. Even in slapstick shorts, whose heroes remain unchanged as one wildly improbable situation follows another, character is paramount. As an audience, if we don't care, why should we watch?
Jake Gittes is not an immediately attractive character, nor is he meant to be. He is a cynical private eye who has seen it all—or thinks he has. His client's real pain moves him only to a wisecrack; the glass of cheap whiskey he shoves at Curly is simply an efficient way to help the big guy to collect himself. (Note that there is a variety of whiskies in the cabinet to serve to a variety of clients.)
Chinatown was released in 1974. While seventies audiences might well anticipate Gittes' jaundiced viewpoint, because of its similarity to such forties and fifties private-eye classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, none of these would have prepared them for Gittes' elegant white suit (he's a prosperous businessman who doesn't have to dirty his hands) or the fancy, bourgeois office.
Yet Gittes engages our interest from the very first page of the screenplay. How? By his nonchalance, his mocking humor, and an air of easy authority that speaks of the consummate professional.
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