Chinatown, the 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski, from a screenplay by Robert Towne, tells the story of Jake Gttes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator who mostly handles marital infidelity cases. One day, Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office and hires Gittes to find out whether her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), who happens to be one of the most powerful men in the city of Los Angeles, has been cheating on her. Jake follows Mulwray and finds that he has been having an affair with another woman. When he tells Mrs. Mulwray, she gives the photos to the newspapers, causing a scandal. Then another woman shows up in his office and identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Shortly after this, Hollis Mulwray is found dead in a reservoir. Gittes becomes obsessed with trying to find out who used him and why.

Polanski and Towne were influenced by Raymond Chandler in their making of this film, although Gittes is a more cynical and less polished character than Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. And the film is actually bleaker than any of Chandler’s works. (Although, come to think of it, The Lady in the Lake is an extremely bleak novel.) The film benefits from Polanski’s intimate style of direction. He often has the camera follow people from room to room and from place to place. This has the effect of making one feel almost as if one were being physically drawn into the action. This contributes to the emotionally devastating effect of final scene.

The story of Chinatown was inspired by an actual series of events known as the California Water Wars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles fought with local farmers for control of water in the Owens Valley. Los Angeles eventually managed to acquire the rights to all of the water in the valley, and Owens Lake was turned into a dust bowl. The character of Hollis Mulwray is loosely based on William Mulholland, a key player in the Water Wars. Mulholland, an Irishman, was a self-taught engineer. He was the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He deliberately underestimated the amount of water available to the city in order to whip up public support for the idea of building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. Mulholland also falsely told the residents of Owens Valley the city would only take water for domestic use and not for commercial use. Mulholland conspired with Mayor Frederick Eaton to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the public.

Like many other American cities, Los Angeles was built through greed and corruption. Maybe this is a universal phenomenon. In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams points out that many cities in Britain were built from the wealth generated by the slave trade. Much of the modern world has unsavory origins.

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