Chinatown | 1974
Reportedly a fraught production, director Roman Polanski added bags of atmosphere and a tragic ending to Robert Towne’s brilliant script (based on the corruption involved in the Los Angeles water programme) and the result was a classic neo-noir.
Although the film uses plenty of real locations to conjure up the Los Angeles of 1939, there are some stunningly convincing sets: the interior of the Hall of Records; the Department of Water and Power; Gittes’ living room; and some interiors of the Mulwray mansion are all fake.
After being hired by the supposed ‘Mrs Mulwray’, JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) follows her husband to a public hearing at which Hollis Mulwray, the LA Water Commissioner, opposes the building of a new dam. The meeting really is held in the Council Chamber of Los Angeles City Hall, 200 North Spring Street, downtown.
Tailed by Gittes, Mulwray heads out to inspect a dry river bed by the ‘Hollenbeck Bridge’. This turns out to be the bridge where Foothill Boulevard crosses Big Tujunga Wash near West Conover Road, north of Sunland, in the San Fernando Valley. Gittes returns here later, after the homeless man is found mysteriously drowned, to find it’s no longer quite so parched.
At Point Fermin, Point Fermin Park, Gaffey Street at Paseo del Mar, San Pedro, south Los Angeles, Gittes sees water being dumped into the ocean. The road, where he leaves a watch under the wheel of Mulwray’s car to see how long the Commissioner hangs about, is in front of Walker’s Cafe, 700 West Paseo Del Mar. After many years, the cafe finally closed its doors for good in 2021. There seems to be a local campaign to save the place and reopen it.
A bit of trivia: the photographs of Mulwray arguing with his ex-business partner Noah Cross (John Huston), were supposedly taken outside downtown LA’s old Pig’n’Whistle. There were several branches of Pig’n’Whistle downtown, now all gone, though the one on Hollywood Boulevard was restored and reopened in 2001. The photos for the film were staged outside the Pacific Dining Car, 1310 West Sixth Street, at Witmer Street just west of downtown – which became a key location in Training Day.
Gittes goes on to photograph the commissioner enjoying the afternoon with a mysterious young woman. They’re in a rowing boat by the bridge at the north end of the 15-acre lake in Echo Park, at Glendale Boulevard and Park Avenue, Silver Lake. After years of neglect, and an ugly coating of red paint, the bridge was reconstructed in 2010.
It’s on to the ‘El Macondo Apartments’, where Gittes gets more clandestine shots of Mulwray with the woman. You can see the apartment block in West Hollywood, not far from the venerable Chateau Marmont. It’s Mi Casa, 1400-1414 Havenhurst Drive, just south of Sunset Boulevard.
The mansion of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), where Gittes eventually finds something odd about the pond in the garden, is 1315 South El Molino Drive, now slightly more shaded by trees in an eye-wateringly expensive area of South Pasadena.
‘Oak Pass Reservoir’, the lake at the centre of the intrigue, from which the body of Mulwray is dragged, is the Stone Canyon Reservoir, in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Bel Air. This is also where Gittes gets his nosed sliced open (by director Polanski). The reservoir is not accessible, but can be viewed from Stone Canyon Overlook on Mulholland Drive.
Gittes meets up with Evelyn Mulwray at the ‘Brown Derby’ restaurant, the hat-shaped eatery which once stood in midtown LA. The Derby is long-gone – the classic, deep red interior seen in the film is one-time European restaurant, the Windsor, now Korean restaurant (but, thankfully, unchanged) The Prince, 3198 West Seventh Street at South Catalina Street, Koreatown.
The Prince crops up again, in 2006 actioner Crank, as the restaurant in which Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) uses a meat-cleaver to hack off the hand of the villain’s brother; and more recently as ‘Bert’s’, the ‘DC’ restaurant in which the ‘MOD squad’ meet up to compare tactics in Jason Reitman’s wickedly funny Thank You For Smoking.
That's not the exterior of The Prince, though, where Gittes and Mulwray part company. It's the rear entrance of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on South Grand Avenue, between West 5th and West 6th Streets, opposite the Hilton Checkers Los Angeles. You can see this same narrow alleyway in David Fincher's Se7en.
Gittes goes to see Noah Cross (John Huston), the power behind the devious scheming, at his estate on Catalina Island, just off the Los Angeles coast. That’s the 1928 white Spanish-Moderne Avalon Casino by the landing stage at the northwest end of Crescent Bay (it contains a beautiful 1,000 seater cinema, a grand ballroom plus a small museum and art gallery), 1 Casino Way, Avalon.
The Cross estate is El Rancho Escondido, 1 El Rancho Escondido Road, Avalon, a couple of miles southwest of Catalina Airport. Tours visit the working ranch, which began in the Thirties as the Wrigley family’s Arabian Horse Ranch.
The ‘Mar Vista Rest Home’, where Gittes and Evelyn go to “find a place for dad” but discover a whole load of unwittingly rich inmates, was the Eastern Star Home, which has since become the Archer School for Girls, 11725 Sunset Boulevard, on the road’s western reaches in Brentwood. In 1998, the school became the psychiatric institute in which Eddie Murphy is briefly incarcerated in Dr Dolittle.
Evelyn Mulwray suddenly takes off without explanation, after receiving a mysterious phone call. Gittes tails her to a house at 1972 Canyon Drive, north of Franklin Avenue, in Hollywood, where he sees her with – and eventually discovers the identity of – the young woman photographed with her husband.
This house was also the home of Alicia Silverstone in 1999 comedy Blast From the Past.
Gittes discovers the body of Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd), the fake ‘Mrs Mulwray’, in the apartment complex at 8481/2 East Kensington Road in the Echo Park district, near to locations seen in LA Confidential, Training Day and The Fast And The Furious.
If the film played fair with the previous two locations (both real addresses are mentioned), the ‘San Pedro’ address, where Jake tells the cops Evelyn is hiding, is completely false. The home of Curly, who helps Gittes evade the cops, can be seen at 5030 Lemon Grove Avenue, at North Serrano Avenue, west of the Hollywood Freeway in East Hollywood.
The uncompromisingly bleak climax (not surprisingly, this was Polanski's idea) was filmed in Los Angeles’ real Chinatown, on Spring Street, just south of Ord Street, which has since been largely redeveloped.