Guests Speak

The First Guest Post!

My friend, Rob Avery, agreed to write on his passion–the movie Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson. Rob says it’s the perfect mystery and every mystery writer should have this movie in their Mysteries-to-Emulate repertoire. Except he might not use the word “repertoire.” Thanks for contributing, Rob. 


Rob Avery is an attorney in Utah who has written two full-length mysteries that will be published this year. He practices law to pay for his addiction to ocean sailing and writes books because he’s bored by television.

Forget it, Jake; it’s ChinatownChina Town

Cheri asked me to write something for her blog. I asked her if she had a topic in mind and she said something to the effect of “Oh, c’mon, we’re writers. Write something.” Well, that’s not entirely true. She’s a writer (published!) and she teaches writing. Conversely, I am a lawyer (legally!) and would love to be published anywhere but in the newspaper. I’ll give it a shot anyway.

And, because nature hates a vacuum, I’ll pick my own topic. I will make a few assumptions along the way, too. I will, for instance, assume that you are either a writer or you want to be a writer or you’re interested in writing. Why? Because you are reading Cheri’s blog and she’s not hosting this thing to share recipes for authentic Kansas Vichyssoise or traditional Midwestern turnip strudel.

Tonight’s topic is the movie Chinatown (1974). Have you seen it? If not, you must immediately schedule a date with your DVD player and watch it. Why? Because if you go to a good film school they will make you study two movies to the finest grain of detail: Casablanca and Chinatown. There is a reason for that. These movies will teach you something.

Casablanca (1942) is marvelous in many ways; too many to mention here because I really want to focus on Chinatown. Suffice it to say that it features the most intricate character development as Rick morphs from a cynical, self-absorbed, mover/shaker/player to a hero of the first order who kills a Nazi Major and sacrifices his escape from Casablanca to allow his former lover to flee with her husband. Marvelous it is, but on to Chinatown.

Robert Towne’s script may very well be perfect. In 1975, Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars (an event for which I lost interest right around the time that Dances with Wolves won Best Picture) but it only won Best Original Screenplay. You’ll know why when you see the movie. The characters are written in stunning and realistic 3-D. Not 3-D as in Captain EO (starring Michael Jackson) that haunted Disney theme parks for ten years but 3-D as in believable three-dimensional characters who, like most real people, conceal their true nature while playing a role. Oh, that was deep, wasn’t it?

The structure is marvelous. Every line of dialogue is necessary; there is no fluff. It is a well-crafted world-class mystery. As Noah Cross says to Jake Gittes over lunch,

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with – but believe me, you don’t.”

The audience may also think they know what is going on but the pieces of the puzzle don’t fall together until the last few minutes of the movie. Everything was there all along to solve the mystery but, like the best mysteries, you won’t realize it until it’s too late. Even the reason for titling the movie Chinatown isn’t revealed – though there are some teasers – until the last scene.

Rob’s Must Read Books

Cheri will tell you (or, at least, she should) that you become a better writer by reading. Want to write mysteries? Read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Robert B. Parker, John Le Carre, Harlan Coben, and a host of others. If you have the time, read P.D. James, too. But, you will need the time. If you want to write anything at all regardless of genre, read anything – maybe everything – written by Ernest Hemingway. And watch Chinatown.

 Read the full screenplay of Chinatown.

2 comments

  1. A few more things about this wonderful film:

    Film noir guru Eddie Muller has pointed out that the interesting thing about “Chinatown” is that it isn’t quite neo-noir, that is, film noir told with modern cinematic vernacular. Rather, it sort of takes its place nicely right alongside classic period (1940-1960) film noir. For some, it’s THE film noir. And, of course, John Huston, who plays Noah Cross, directed what is credited by some as the first film noir, “The Maltese Falcon” – a nice bookend.

    Towne got the idea for the screenplay via a conversation with an L.A. vice cop who worked a Chinatown beat. “What do you do in Chinatown?” Towne asked him. “As little as possible,” was the answer from the cop. This puzzled Towne. Turns out, because of the various dialects and gangs in the area you may think you know what’s going on in Chinatown, but nobody really does. You could be helping the bad guys. Hence the memorable theme behind this film.

    I like the fact that the story unravels for the viewer at the same rate that it does for Jake Gittes; we have no special insights. And the whole notion of thinking you know what’s going on but don’t is metaphorically stated by the Evelyn Mulwray character having a (metaphorical) flaw in her eye. Brilliant! I also like that Jack Nicholson is subdued in this movie. In just about all of his films he plays a hyperbolic version of himself – not in this.

    The ending of the film was a point of contention between Towne and Roman Polanski, the director, and they fell out because of it. Towne had scripted a happier ending where the principal characters all get away cleanly. Polanski – the victim of the Charles Manson gang, let us not forget – had a darker vision, which prevailed. He wrote out the final scene days before it was shot. I’m happier with the tragic ending. It fits.

    Also – I read somewhere that Robert Towne was originally doing a trilogy about three things that make Los Angeles, Los Angeles. #1 was water and agriculture – that’s “Chinatown.” #2 was real estate – that was the sequel “The Two Jakes.” The third was supposed to be the film industry, but it was never made. For myself, I just think of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) as the missing third installment. Works just fine.

    Now, Bob… I need you to also fully appreciate the brilliance that is behind David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” – a “love story in the City of Dreams.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I like the fact that the story unravels for the viewer at the same rate that it does for Jake Gittes; we have no special insights.”

      That is another reason the movie is perfect for the mystery writer. It is, as far as I can recall, entirely first person. Just like “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon” and most other great classic mysteries.

      — Rob

      Liked by 1 person

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