CLOSE
YouTube
YouTube

12 Nosy Facts About Chinatown

YouTube
YouTube

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. 

YouTube

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.

YouTube

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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
iStock
iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Cost Plus World Market
arrow
Smart Shopping
18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
Cost Plus World Market
Cost Plus World Market

Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

Buy on Amazon.

2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

Buy on Amazon.

3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

Buy on ThinkGeek.

4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

Buy on Amazon.

5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

Buy on Amazon.

6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

Buy on Amazon.

7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
Cost Plus World Market

This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

Buy at Cost Plus World Market.

8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

Buy on Amazon.

9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

Buy on Amazon.

10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

Buy on Amazon.

11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

Buy on Amazon.

12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

Buy on Amazon.

13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

Buy on Amazon.

14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

Buy on Amazon.

15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

Buy on Amazon.

16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

Buy on Amazon.

17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios