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12 Nosy Facts About Chinatown

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Despite the advice given in its last line of dialogue, the one thing you can't do with Chinatown is forget it. Regarded by nearly everyone—from the American Film Institute to IMDb users—as one of the best movies ever made, Roman Polanski's masterpiece is a modern film noir with a labyrinthine plot and deeply sinister undertones, with top-of-their-game performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and, well, just about everyone in it. (Don't forget Rance Howard as Irate Farmer!) Here are a dozen facts about Chinatown, all as plain as the sliced nose on Jake's face. 

1. IT WOULDN'T EXIST IF ROBERT TOWNE HADN'T BEEN FRIENDS WITH JACK NICHOLSON. 

The screenwriter and the actor were good friends, even roommates at one point, and they'd studied acting together. Towne has said repeatedly that he wrote the lead role specifically for Nicholson: "I could not have written that character without knowing Jack." Furthermore, it was while visiting Nicholson in Oregon, where he was directing Drive, He Said, that Towne started reading Raymond Chandler detective novels and a book about the history of California water rights, all of which led to Chinatown

2. THE SCREENPLAY DIDN'T HAVE ANY SCENES ACTUALLY SET IN CHINATOWN.

Chinatown is a symbol in Towne's screenplay, representing "the futility of good intentions" (as he said in a DVD interview). And in his original screenplay, it was just a metaphor, with none of the action taking place there. Director Roman Polanski suggested it would be more satisfying if the film's climax took us to the very place J.J. Gittes never wanted to return to, literally as well as symbolically. 

3. POLANSKI CONVINCED TOWNE TO CHANGE THE ENDING, TOO.

In the original version, Evelyn Mulwray fatally shoots her father, but since she refuses to explain her reasons, she's destined for life in prison. "Not a happy ending," Towne said, "but a more complex ending." Polanski wanted to go even darker: Evelyn takes a shot at Dad but only wounds him, while she herself ends up dead, leaving poor Katherine in the hands of the nasty old man. Towne thought that was too melodramatic but ultimately ceded the battle to Polanski. He eventually acknowledged that Polanski's version was better. 

4. ROBERT TOWNE TURNED DOWN $175,000 TO ADAPT THE GREAT GATSBY AND TOOK $25,000 TO WRITE CHINATOWN INSTEAD.

Uber-producer and Hollywood playboy Robert Evans liked the (mostly uncredited) script doctoring Towne had done on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, and offered him what was then a very large sum of money to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Towne declined for an understandable reason: "I didn't want to be the unknown Hollywood writer who f***** up a literary classic." (That honor eventually went to Francis Ford Coppola.) Instead, Towne said, he wanted to develop his Chinatown idea. For this Evans offered him $25,000. (Don't worry about Towne, though. When the film actually went into production, he got another $250,000, plus five percent of the gross.) 

5. POLANSKI ALMOST DIDN'T DO HIS CAMEO BECAUSE HE DIDN'T WANT TO CUT HIS HAIR. 

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The director cast himself in the role of the bow-tied thug who slices Gittes' nose. But Polanski had long hair at the time, which was wrong for the character, and he was reluctant to cut it—reluctant almost to the point of backing out and casting someone else. Finally he relented, but he got the haircut at the last possible minute, right there on the set before shooting the scene. 

6. NOAH CROSS CONSISTENTLY MISPRONOUNCING GITTES' NAME WAS A MISTAKE, NOT A CHOICE.

It certainly suits the character of a rich, evil man not to care whether he gets some dumb detective's name right. But in truth, the reason Cross keeps calling him "Gits" instead of "Git-is" is that the actor, John Huston, couldn't get it right. Polanski had Nicholson add a line trying to correct him, and after that just let it go. 

7. IT WAS INTENDED AS THE FIRST PART IN A TRILOGY—BUT NO, THE ABORTED THIRD PART DID NOT BECOME WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT.

Part two was The Two Jakes, which Towne wrote and Nicholson directed in 1990. Part three, which never did get written, was to have been called Gittes vs. Gittes (not Cloverleaf, as the legend goes), about the detective's divorce, and would have involved corruption relating to L.A.'s land ownership and transportation system. An urban legend has sprung up that this third plot was the basis for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which does involve a private detective in 1940s L.A. uncovering a scheme to dismantle public transportation and buy up land for a freeway system. But Roger Rabbit came out in 1988, two years before the failure of The Two Jakes meant Gittes vs. Gittes wasn't going to happen. Moreover, Roger Rabbit was adapted, albeit loosely, from a 1981 novel (Who Censored Roger Rabbit, in which they were comic strip characters, not cartoons). Who Framed Roger Rabbit was clearly inspired by Chinatown, as were many crime films set in old-timey L.A., and it bore some coincidental similarities to Towne's unproduced idea. But there was no official connection. 

8. THE MUSICAL SCORE WAS A LAST-MINUTE REPLACEMENT, WRITTEN IN NINE DAYS.

Polanski's go-to composer, Krzysztof Komeda, had died a few years earlier, so Polanski ended up hiring a man named Phillip Lambro to do the honors for Chinatown. After a test screening, however, Polanski's friend Bronislaw Kaper—an old-school Hollywood guy and a composer in his own right—told him: "Great movie, but you have to change the music." (Producer Robert Evans was already leaning in that direction.) Jerry Goldsmith was hired to write a new score, and did it in nine days. His rush job was rewarded with an Oscar nomination, one of seven he received in the 1970s alone. (Some of Lambro's score survives in the Chinatown trailer.)

9. WE DON'T KNOW ANYTHING THAT J.J. GITTES DOESN'T KNOW. 

This is the sort of detail that's either "well, duh" obvious, or that blows your mind a little when you realize it. The film is entirely from Gittes' point of view: he's in every scene, and there's no information that we learn before he does. When he gets a phone call, we hear the voice but don’t see the person at the other end. When he gets knocked unconscious in the orange grove, the movie fades with him, fading back in when he wakes up. To emphasize the point that we're seeing everything from Gittes' perspective, Polanski often put the camera behind Nicholson, so we see his back and shoulders. Watch for it.  

10. TOWNE'S ACCLAIMED SCREENPLAY OWES A LOT TO POLANSKI.

Towne won an Oscar for his screenplay, the only one of 11 nominations that came through for Chinatown. (It was the year of The Godfather: Part II.) The script is used in screenwriting courses and is often held up as an example of a perfect screenplay. But Towne's first version was 180 pages long (which would have made a three-hour movie), and hopelessly complicated. "It would have been a mess" if they'd filmed that version, Towne later said. It was when Polanski came to L.A. in the spring of 1973 and spent eight weeks painstakingly rewriting the script with Towne that it really came together. They worked on it every day and, by both men's admission, fought every day, about everything. Polanski crafted the story structure, and Towne would write the dialogue. Towne's ex-wife (who admittedly had an ax to grind) later told a biographer, "Roman could have easily asked for a [writing] credit on Chinatown and he would have gotten it. It wasn't just the ending. Roman simply took it over, structured the whole piece." 

11. THE CUCKOLDED HUSBAND WE MEET IN THE FIRST SCENE USED TO HAVE MORE SINISTER PLANS.

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Poor Curly, played by Burt Young (soon to be Paulie in Rocky), has hired Gittes to find out if his wife is cheating on him, which she is. A view of the scandalous photos is the first thing we see after the opening credits. Originally, the scene had an exchange where Curly tells Gittes he's going to kill the unfaithful woman, and Gittes tells him he's not rich enough to get away with murder. (That's why they're talking about Curly paying his bill as they come out of the office, and why Gittes says, "I only brought it up"—Curly's financial situation—"to illustrate a point.") Towne later regretted removing this part of the scene. "That exchange I miss probably as much as any in the movie," he said in 1999. "Because it really foreshadows [the] 'You've got to be rich to kill somebody and get away with it' [theme]. He's really foreshadowing the whole movie." 

12. THERE'S A RECURRING VISUAL MOTIF THAT SHOWS UP OVER AND OVER—AND IT'S THERE ACCIDENTALLY.

Chinatown frequently shows us images of two things that are identical, except that one is flawed: Two pocket watches side by side, one broken. A pair of eyeglasses, one lens cracked. Gittes' nostrils, one sliced. Gittes smashes one taillight on Evelyn's car. He loses one shoe in the reservoir. Evelyn has a flaw in one of her irises. Katherine looks like a duplicate of Evelyn, but is the product of incest. The list goes on. But when Towne is asked about this on the DVD commentary, he says it was totally unintentional; he and Polanski never discussed using such images as a recurring theme. Whatever meaning we may ascribe to the symbolism, the filmmakers didn't put it there on purpose. 

Additional Sources:
DVD/Blu-ray commentary and special features
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind
American Film Institute

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter. She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


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"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: no team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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