5 Things You May Not Know About the Iconic Film ‘Chinatown’

CHINATOWN, from left: Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, 1974
Everett Collection

The 1974 neo-noir mystery Chinatown is widely considered one of the best films of all time. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won for Best Original Screenplay. Set in 1937 during a series of disputes over water in Southern California, it follows a private investigator named Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who is hired to follow a man accused of adultery but is quickly embroiled in a web of corruption and lies surrounding some regional water disputes. But this is to be expected. As the oft-quoted line goes: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This iconic quote has now come to describe just about any place with corruption or a somewhat murky power structure, including Hollywood itself.



Not a lot of films have that much staying power that they end up in the public lexicon, which illustrates how canonical the film truly was. 50 years later, we take a look back at some fun facts about it.

1The film had a sequel

THE TWO JAKES, Jack Nicholson, 1990.

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Titled The Two Jakes and set a decade after the first film, the 1990 neo-noir drama follows Jake as he investigates the murder of a client who was also named Jake. Despite Nicholson reprising his role and directing, the film failed to draw audiences in any significant way and received very mixed reviews.

2Roman Polanski was difficult to work with.

CHINATOWN, Jack Nicholson and director Roman Polanski on-set, 1975

Everett Collection

This one’s not a shocker. Prior to absconding to France where he has remained now for decades, infamous director/fugitive Roman Polanski was so passionate about making this film that he not only rallied to be made director of it he reluctantly returned to Los Angeles, where his pregnant wife Sharon Tate had been murdered just a few years earlier, to make it.

However, Polanski was not an easy person to have behind the scenes; he and lead actor Jack Nicholson got into many heated arguments during filming, including one where Polanski smashed Nicholson’s portable television with a mop because Nicholson kept stalling shooting by watching Lakers games. Polanski also frequently fought with screenwriter Robert Towne about rewrites, and Faye Dunaway argued with him so much she stormed off in the middle of shooting and had to be convinced to return to finish the film.

3Jack Nicholson’s love life may have made things weird on set.

CHINATOWN, John Huston, Jack Nicholson, 1974

Courtesy of Everett

Jack Nicholson had just started dating co-star John Huston‘s daughter, Anjelica Huston, prior to filming. This probably made some scenes rather awkward! Such as the one where John Huston’s character Noah Cross asks Jake if he’s sleeping with his daughter.

4The film is inspired by true events

American civil engineer William Mulholland Public Domain

William Mulholland Public Domain/Wikipedia

The character of Hollis (played by Darrell Zwerling)  is supposedly based on William Mulholland, who was the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the beginning of the 20th century, when there were actually many disputes over water. (The road Mulholland Drive is also named after him!)

5Jack Nicholson really slapped Faye Dunaway

CHINATOWN, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, 1974

Courtesy of Everett

In his defense, she made him! Getting frustrated after several takes didn’t work, Dunaway told Nicholson to really slap her, and the scene stayed in the film.