Believe Care Invest: Chinatown

Why it might be hard to identify with Jake:
  • He cares more about his venetian blinds than his client’s feelings. He’s a money-grubbing bottom feeder, but he’s also a bit of a dandy, and neither of those are very appealing to us. These things help our ability to believe in his reality, but hurt our ability to care about him.
  • Right away, we’re saying, “Oh, this isn’t a phony Hollywood PI, this is the real deal, handling sordid divorce cases.” On a “Believe” level, we find his non-noble attitude to his clients to be refreshing: We’re finally getting to see what PIs are really like. Later, while he’s supposed to be investigating his clients at the Water Board hearing, he’s reading the Racing Form.
  • We don’t really care about Jake until 16:38, when another customer at his barbershop accosts him, saying, “You’ve got a hell of a way to make a living.” Jake, wounded, says, “Listen pal, I make an honest living, people only come to me in a desperate situation, I help ‘em out.” Now that we’ve seen him endure a public humiliation, we care a bit more about him.
  • He then has another embarrassment we identify with when he tells the dirty joke to his operatives and doesn’t realize Mrs. Mulwray is behind him.
  • From the opening photographs, we can see that he’s obviously good at his job, but we’re not sure how skilled he has to be to do it. It’s only when he pulls a very clever trick that we suddenly invest in him: He gets tired of waiting for Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he’s got a stash of cheap fob watches. He puts one under Mulwray’s tire and goes home. The next day he checks the broken watch to see what time Mulwray left. Suddenly, we love this guy. We always love resourceful heroes.
Five Es
  • Eat:No
  • Exercise: He walks a lot, climbs building and cliffs, etc.
  • Economic Activity: His whole life is his job.
  • Enjoy: Not at first. At the water board meeting, he thinks it’s funny when a farmer brings his sheep in. Later, he loves telling his operatives the dirty joke. (Often, enjoyment opens a hero up to embarrassment)
  • Emulate: I guess you could say he dresses like a classier PI than he is.
Rise above
  • He tells fake Mrs. Mulwray she should let sleeping dogs lie. “You’re better off not knowing.”
High five a black guy
  • Nope.

Chinatown: The Archive

This was an interesting case where I closely examined the movie only to discover that it kind of fell apart under the scrutiny. Ultimately I conclude that it makes no damn sense, but that’s okay because it has just enough of a semblance of sense to be a masterpiece.

Rulebook Casefile: Closing an Empathy Hole and Opening Up a Motivation Hole in Chinatown

One thing I talked about before (and talk about more in my book) is the difference between empathy holes, motivation holes and plot holes and the problems you get into when you dig one hole to fill another. As I make more clear in my book, those holes should be prioritized in that order. All empathy holes must be filled, even if it means digging a motivation hole, and so on.

Chinatown is a good example. As I said before, the version of the script that’s online comes from late in the revision process, but there are a few key differences. One of these explains one of the problems I had with Jake’s muddy motivation.

In the finished film, it’s never clear if Jake is really working for Noah Cross or not. He kind of just sits there and listens as Cross tries to hire him to find Catherine, then changes the subject. Finally, he does call Cross to tell him he found the girl, but the position of that scene changed between script and screen.

In both versions, he finds the glasses, assumes that they’re Hollis’s, and assumes that Evelyn is the murderer. In the finished film, he then goes and confronts Evelyn immediately, who tells him the truth about her father, then points out that the glasses can’t be Hollis’s. He then arranges for Evelyn to leave the country, but before he actually gets her on the boat, he decides to call up Cross and tell him to come over because he’s found the girl ...but he’s only doing so in order to confront Cross about being the murderer.

This brings up the huge question: why choose to confront Cross at this inopportune moment? Why not wait a few hours until Evelyn had safely gotten away? It’s a huge mistake on Jake’s part (and the whole reason for the unhappy ending) albeit one I didn’t notice until watching the movie twice in a row.

Well, it turns out that this made more sense in the script. In the script, he calls up Cross before he confronts Evelyn and he genuinely intends to hand the girl over in return for a payday. By the time he figures out that Cross is the actual killer, Cross is already on his way over, and has to change plans and confront him instead.

It’s easy to see why this was changed. If he genuinely takes the job from Cross, and tries to hand the girl over for cash, even if he thinks Evelyn is guilty at the time, then we lose too much empathy for Jake. If, on the other hand, he calls up Cross just to fake him out and confront him, we like him a lot better.

But once they made this change, it no longer made sense for Jake to take this moment to make this confrontation. They could have let their changes snowball and, having filled this empathy hole, continued on to fill the motivation hole they had just dug, but that would have necessitated bigger changes, because then it would be harder to bring all the characters together for the finale. Instead, they left the scene where it was. It makes no sense, and makes Jake hugely responsible for the unhappy ending, but it’s better than having an empathy hole. They just figured most people wouldn’t notice Jake’s huge error of bad timing, and they were mostly right.

Here’s the original scene:


Rulebook Casefile: Thematic Details Throughout “Chinatown”

The Chinatown script went through a million changes, but the version that’s most readily available online is pretty similar to the final version, with a few notable changes. The biggest difference is that the villain is still named Julian Cross, not Noah Cross.

I talked before about how it’s good to go back when you’re almost done and tie more details into the theme, and this is a prime example. Not only did the biblical Noah survive the flood (just as Cross doesn’t care if a dam will break) but he also curses his son for seeing him in his drunken nakedness (just as Cross will doom his daughter after molesting her.) (Maybe the second one is a stretch on my part, but it fits.)

Indeed, water is everywhere in this screenplay:
  • Jake’s first client Curly is a fisherman.
  • The whole city is obsessed with the drought and the proposal from the department of Water and Power for building a new dam.
  • When Jake is in a barbershop, a car overheats outside.
  • Hollis takes Catherine rowing through Echo Park, causing Jake to say, “Water again.”
  • Jake visits the orange growers and finds out that the Water and Power department has actually been poisoning their wells. When they shoot at him, it bursts his car’s radiator.
  • Noah Cross runs a fisherman’s club, and the club sponsors the old folks’ home where the unwitting land owners live.
  • Jake decides to get Evelyn and Catherine out of town on Curly’s boat.
That’s a lot of water, but I didn’t consciously notice most of these until I went looking for them.  The goal is for the theme to be omnipresent but not oppressive, and this screenplay accomplishes that admirably.

(I'm using “theme” more broadly here than I usually do, referring not just to the good vs. good dilemma, but to the “theme of water”, but if we stick to my original theme, “build the future vs. honor the past”, then water plays a strong part on both sides of that equation.)

Rulebook Casefile: How Does Chinatown Get Away with 73 Loose Ends?

In the checklist, I recommend that it’s good to leave some questions unresolved, because the audience won’t mind and it actually makes your story seem deeper. Chinatown is surely the ultimate example of that. Below, I’ve listed a whopping 73 unanswered questions. For some of these questions, we can supply our own speculative answers, but some of them would seem to have no possible satisfactory answer. Let’s take a look at them:

  • What if Hollis, instead of spending the night on the beach, had gone home? Wouldn’t that have given away the whole plan, since Jake would have seen him with his real wife? Why go to this elaborate deception? How did they think they would get away with it: Surely everyone involved (Jake, Evelyn, Hollis) would raise a stink after the story ran in the papers? How could they have been sure that none of them would go to the press to refute the story?
  • Was Hollis really having an affair with Catherine, or was he just being fatherly? If it’s the latter, how could the conspirators have been sure that he would engage in fatherly affection that would just so happen to look like an affair to Jake and the papers?
  • If Cross has hired killers on his payroll, and he was willing to kill Hollis, why not just do that, which would have been much easier and far less likely to raise suspicion? What did Cross hope to accomplish with this plan? Get Hollis fired? Get him to commit suicide? Just discredit him long enough to win the vote? Would the public change their opinion of the dam based on this scandal?
  • What’s up with the three addresses? Hollis and Evelyn have their nice house, then there’s the other house where Catherine has been stashed. Whose house is that? Who usually lives there? Then there’s the address where Hollis is photographed with Catherine. Whose apartment is that? Who usually lives there?
  • How much time passes in the section of the movie between the confrontation with the real Evelyn and the discovery of Hollis’s death? Is it all one day, as it seems? If so, at what point is Hollis killed? Is he dead by the time the story hits the papers or due to an argument after it happens? Did Cross go there to kill him or was it a crime of passion? Where was Evelyn when the killing happened?
  • Why does Jake try to find Hollis? To get him to drop the suit? To find out the truth? To apologize? If it’s the first, why does he keep looking for him after Evelyn has dropped the suit?
  • Given what we later learn, Hollis seems to have been killed the night before Jake visits his office, if not earlier, so why does his secretary imply that he just stepped out for lunch? Did someone tell her to say that? To what end? Why does Yelburton then tell snoopy Jake that Hollis wouldn’t cheat if he was the one who created this whole elaborate scheme just to convince Jake that Hollis was cheating?
  • Did Yelburton personally hire Ira Sessions to hire Gittes? Who is Sessions and how did they find her?
  • Was Hollis killed for saying the dam would burst or to cover up the land scheme? Is the dam actually in danger of bursting, or did Hollis just say that because he knew what they were really up to? If not, do the schemers care that the dam at the center of their massive irrigation scheme might burst?
  • After Jake discovers that Hollis is dead, what motive does he have to keep investigating? Why visit the morgue?
  • Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the reservoir that night?
  • Jake says he wants to get the big boys making the pay-offs. How? What will he do to them? What standing does he have for a personal lawsuit? Is he collecting evidence to hand over to the cops? Does he just want to expose them to the papers as a public-spirited gesture? Does he intend to extort hush money?
  • Who asked for the restaurant meeting between Jake and Evelyn? He later seems unaware of Cross’s role in all this, so what inspires him to ask about the C in her name? Why should Evelyn hire him if he’s already doing the job for free?
  • Why does Jake go to meet with Cross? What was the pretense for the meeting? What is he hoping to find out?  (He asks almost no questions.) Jake confirms that the “mistress” is missing, but when did he find that out?
  • Why does Jake go to check on some orange groves at this point?
  • Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the old folks home? Surely there hasn’t been time for them to have been called out there, given that it’s out of town.
  • Who calls Jake in the night to try to get him to come visit Ida Sessions? If it’s the cops (as is implied later) why would they do that? Surely not if they think he did it (because then he would know better)? Are they trying to frame him for the murder? Why? Who killed Ida Sessions? Why? Why did Ida know so much about the conspiracy that she understood that the man in the obituary column was one of the land buyers? It appears that she’s just an actress they hired for the part (and prostitute? It’s unclear what she means when she says that she’s a working girl) so why give her such a complete picture of the conspiracy?
  • What did Jake think would happen with when he confronted Cross? What was his goal? Get Cross to turn himself in? Jake is unarmed, has no operatives there, hasn’t called the police, and has every reason to assume that Cross might bring his armed help.
  • What is Jake’s plan when he takes Cross and Mullvahill to the girl?
  • How do the police find the address in Chinatown? Did they follow his operatives?
So how does the movie get away with all this confusion? I think that part of the answer lies in the power of total point-of-view identification. Jake is in every single scene in the movie, and a large percentage of the shots are over his shoulder. If the audience is totally bonded to a hero’s POV, we’ll accept his perspective and only his perspective on what’s going on. If he’s not worried about it, we’re not worried about it. It doesn’t matter if the movie makes sense to us, it only has to make sense to Jake, and apparently it does, although, in retrospect, it’s hard to figure out what he was really thinking half the time.

It’s also interesting that the script originally had voiceover, which might have explained much of this, but Polansky made Towne cut it out. You might think that voiceover would have strengthened our bond to Jake, but I think it would have actually weakened it, because it would have made all of these plot holes obvious. It would have implied that Jake had some perspective on what’s going on, which would have encouraged us to get our own perspective. Without the voiceover, we’re just watching him take it all in and try to process it in real time, so we do the same, without ever taking a step back and asking “Wait, what about…?”

So yes, incredibly, all of these loose ends do indeed strengthen and deepen the movie, at least upon first viewing, and don’t cause a big problem for the viewer. The movie feels satisfyingly complex: deep, dark and mysterious. Before analyzing the movie here, I had seen it several times, and each time, I ended up hopelessly confused, but blamed myself for that and assumed that, if I ever watched the movie twice in a row, it would all brilliantly come together. Well, this time I finally watched it twice in a row, and realized that no, actually, it makes very little sense. But that’s a high standard to hold any story to. It works for individual viewings, and that’s all we can ask.

Straying from the Party Line: Jake’s Muddy Motivation in “Chinatown”

What is Jake’s motivation in Chinatown? In a first viewing of the movie, it seems fairly clear: At first he wants to catch Hollis Mulwray cheating, then he wants to find out what was really going on. But to what end? Once you start asking that question, more and more questions arise. Let’s break down his goals / motivations in every section of the movie:

1:57 In the first scene, obviously, he’s finishing up his work for Curly
  • Presents photos to Curly
3:38 Then we get seven scenes of working for the fake Mrs. Mulwray, trying to catch her “husband” cheating.
  • Gets hired by fake Mrs. Mulwray
  • Visits Water Board hearing
  • Follows Hollis to dry riverbed, where he sees him speak to a boy on horseback.
  • Jake then follow Hollis to the ocean. Hollis stays on the beach all night.
  • Jake is at the office the next day, looks at photos of Hollis arguing with Cross, gets call from one of his operatives.
  • Takes photos of Hollis and “mistress” rowing at Echo Park
  • Takes photos of them at an apartment.
16:20 Then we get two scenes dealing with aftermath of that case
  • In barbershop after story breaks, insulted by other customer
  • Back at the office, the real Evelyn Mulwray says she’ll sue him.
20:37 So what does Jake do now? Well, it’s not clear what he intends to do. All we can tell is that he starts trying to meet with Hollis...
  • Stops by Hollis’s office, told he’s just gone out to lunch, snoops around.
  • Jake is escorted into Yelburton’s office, where he asks questions.
  • On the way out, he finds out Mulvihill is working as a thug for Yelburton.
  • Jake goes out to the Mulwrays’ house. He sees the eyeglasses in the pond but doesn’t realize what they are. There’s no Hollis, but Evelyn is there and suddenly drops the lawsuit. She tells Jake he can find her husband at a reservoir.
  • At the reservoir, Jake is there when the cops find Hollis’s dead body.
33:25 Okay, so Jake clearly can’t meet with Hollis. What is his goal now? We have no idea. Why doesn’t he simply go home? Why does he go to the coroner’s? For the next eleven scenes (26 minutes of screentime) Jake has no clear motivation:
  • With Evelyn at the coroners. The police ask her questions. To shield her from their scrutiny, Jake pretends that she was the one who hired him.
  • Outside the morgue, she thanks him and says she’ll pay him to back that up. She leaves.
  • Jake goes back inside the morgue for some reason. He finds out more about Hollis and also a dead bum, drowned in a dry river bed.
  • Jake goes out to the river bed, speaks to the boy on horseback about water dumping.
  • Jake goes back to reservoir at night. Mulvihill and a man with a knife are there (why?) Jake gets his nose cut.
  • Back in his office, Jake is all bandaged up and finally tries to explain to his operative what he wants: “I want the big boys that are making the payoffs” “Then what?” “Sue the shit out of them” So he’s been putting together a lawsuit this whole time? As one of his operatives responds, “Sue people like that, they’re likely to be having dinner with the judge who’s trying the suit.” Jake never gets to explain, because Ida Sessions (the fake Mrs. Mulwray) calls, but won’t meet, just tells him to check the obituaries.
  • Then he’s at a restaurant with Evelyn for some reason. He tells her the check wasn’t good enough, because he thinks she’s hiding something. Asks about her maiden name for some reason and finds out it’s Cross.
  • Their conversation continues outside. She correctly points out, “There’s nothing more to say.” He responds, “It seems like half the city is trying to cover it up and that’s fine by me.” So why does the story continue?
  • And yet he goes back to Yelburton’s office, waits outside, sees picture of Noah and Hollis, finds out history of the water board.
  • Inside office. Accuses Yelburton of hiring fake Mrs. Mulwray. What? Why? How?
  • Returning to his office, he find Evelyn there, and she hires him to find out who killed her husband. He finds out more about Cross.
59:58 So now he finally has a client, but wait, in the next scene he takes on another client (or at least doesn’t say he’s not taking the case) so now he’s working for Cross as well (despite the fact that the two clients have conflicting interests)
  • Meets with Cross. Cross hires him to find Hollis’s missing mistress. Leaves saying he has to check on some orange groves. What? Why? Where did that come from?
  • Hall of records. Finds out about recent escrow sales of all the groves.
  • Orange groves, gets shot at and knocked out by angry growers.
  • Evelyn wakes him up. They called his employer.
  • Drives away with Evelyn. Jake has figured most of it out. Makes connection between obit and the land sales.
  • Stop by rest home. Find that old people own the land, don’t know it. Attacked again by Mulvihill and the man with the knife, gets away with Evelyn.
  • Her house. She treats his wound, they have sex, discuss his time in Chinatown, she gets a call, has to go. Tells him her father may have killed Hollis.
129:23 So now we get another shift, because Jake instantly decides that she’s some sort of bad guy and starts to follow her. But if she’s his client, whose interest is he now serving? Does he value his contract with Cross over his contract with her? That seems unlikely.
  • Jake runs out and breaks her taillight before she goes,
  • then follows her to…
  • Another house. Catherine is there, drugged.
  • Evelyn comes out to her car but Jake is there. He accuses her of killing her husband (the murder, you’ll recall, that she hired him to solve.) He threatens to call the cops. Evelyn says Catherine’s her sister, implies there was no affair. Gittes is satisfied, agrees not to call cops, leaves.
135:29 So now, once again, the movie is basically over. Surely his contract with Evelyn is now void, as there’s no longer any trust between them, and he doesn’t call Cross with the information of where Catherine is, so he seems to have abandoned that contract as well. He’s solved the mystery of the conspiracy, but there’s little he can do about it. Essentially, the movie starts up again, when...
  • In the night, someone calls Jake saying Ida Sessions wants to see him. He writes down address and goes back to sleep.
  • Goes out in the morning. Finds her dead. Cops are hiding there. They try to arrest him and imply that they’ll arrest Evelyn, though it’s not clear what the charges would be in either case. It seems as if the police were the ones who called him, but it’s unclear why. He tries to explain some but not all of what’s going on.
1:44:40 So now he has a new goal, trying to protect Evelyn from the police.
  • He takes them to the ocean to show them where the water is being dumped. They say it’s just runoff. Have your client in my office in two hours.
  • Jake goes to the main Mulwray house, presumably to warn Evelyn about the police. It’s being packed up. He finds the glasses in the pool, and evidently concludes that Evelyn killed her husband after all.
1:47:16 So now his goal is to once again pin it on Evelyn. And again we ask, to what end? Whose interest is he serving?
  • He goes to the house where Evelyn is holding Catherine. He finds them packing up too, calls cops to come there and arrest Evelyn, presents the glasses, accuses her of the crime, and finally gets the truth about Catherine. He seems to regret calling the cops and hustles Evelyn and Catherine out the door, telling them he’ll meet them in Chinatown.
1:54:10 So now his goal is to once again protect Evelyn from the police
  • The police arrive at the house. He says that Evelyn left for her maid’s house, offers to take the cops there.
  • He takes them to Curly’s house instead, insists on going in first, flees out the back with Curly.
  • The Mulwrays’ main house: Jake gives their luggage to Curly and arranges for Curly to meet them in Chinatown that evening and take the women to Mexico on his boat.
2:00:00 So now he’s all set, but he inexplicably chooses this moment and this place to accuse Noah Cross of the murders, without any back-up from his operatives or the cops, and without any plan for arresting Cross. 
  • Calls Cross, tells him he’s found the girl.
  • Cross comes, Jake confronts him with the glasses. Cross admits all, has Mulvihill come out with a gun to claim the glasses. Cross insists on being taken to the women.
2:03:53 So now what’s Jake’s goal in the final scene? He just faked out the police by taking them to the wrong address, but it seems that he can’t or won’t do that with Cross, so he takes him where he wants to go. Does Jake have some scheme to get out of handing them over to Cross? We never find out.
  • Takes Cross and Mulvihill to where the girl is. The police are there and they arrested his operatives. They arrest Jake as he tries to explain. Evelyn, Catherine and Curly try to sneak out but Cross spots them and tries to grab Catherine. Evelyn pulls a gun, shoots Cross, and tries to get away with Catherine, but police shoot at her fleeing car and kill her. The police let everybody go and Cross claims Catherine.
So you put all this together and what do you have? Jake is constantly acting against his own self-interest and even against the interest of his clients. Whose interest does it serve when he tries, twice, to nail Evelyn for killing her husband? She’s the client! In the end, Jake’s actions aren’t those of a P.I., they’re those of a cop, serving the public interest. His actions only make sense if they’re leading up to an arrest: The idea that he’s going to sue the conspirators makes no sense. All that he can logically do with the evidence he’s collected is try to have them arrested. Likewise, he sure seems like he wants to arrest Evelyn, and later Cross, for the murder of Hollis, despite the fact he has no authority or ability to do so, and no one wants him to do it.

Jake affects the demeanor of an ultra-cynical gumshoe-for-hire, and a first viewing of the movie seems to back that up, but if you actually try to follow his logic, it could not be less cynical or self-serving.  Ultimately, the movie successfully plays it two ways: It feels appealingly gritty and grimy, but it goes down easy because that grit is only superficial and hides a very idealistic core. Ironically, this duality makes the movie truly cynical.

Tuesday: I dive deeper into some of those unanswered questions the movie leaves you with (75 of them!)

Rulebook Casefile: Jake’s Extreme Resourcefulness in “Chinatown”

We previous looked at another character with extreme resourcefulness: Jason Bourne. Bourne is a nice guy, but because of his memory problems, he doesn’t have enough of a personality to be fully likeable, so the filmmakers made up for it by having him be extra resourceful. We admire the resourcefulness so much that we don’t mind the lack of personality.

Jake Gittes, on the other hand, has lots of personality, it’s just not very likeable. Not only is he surly and cynical, his fatalism borders on passivity (he believes in caring “as little as possible”), which is never an appealing quality in a character. Once again, the filmmakers overcome these barriers to empathy by having the character be delightfully resourceful:
  • Jake gets tired of waiting for Hollis Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he has a bunch of cheap pocketwatches. He lays one behind one of Hollis’s tires and goes home. In the morning, he has one of his operatives fetch the smashed watch, which shows him which time Hollis left.
  • When Jake visits the new water commissioner Yelburton, he asks for his card. Later, Jakes wants to get past a police cordon into a reservoir, so he takes out the card and tells the officer that he’s Yelburton. The officer apologetically ushers him through.
  • Jake isn’t allowed to check out a book showing land sales, so he asks for a ruler instead, holds it against the page and coughs while he tears the page out of the book.
  • Jake wants to see the list of residents at the rest home, so he pretends that he wants to look it over to make sure no Jews are there. When that fails, he makes an excuse to wander around until he sees an activities board with the names on it.
  • Jake wants to follow Evelyn’s car easily at night, so he rushes out first and breaks one of her taillights.
  • He tells the police that he’s leading them to Evelyn at her maid’s house, but he instead leads them to Curly’s house, where he sneaks out the back.
  • He wants to confirm that the glasses are Cross’s, so he asks Cross to read something in bad light, forcing Cross to take out another pair of reading glasses, which match.
Audiences go crazy for this sort of this sort of clever tradecraft. As I said in that piece, many of these things feel like “news we can use”: cool things we can mimic ourselves to be cooler, more successful people. They don’t so much build identification with the hero, but they turn the hero into someone we aspire to be, which is almost as good.

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Chinatown

Jake Gittes, a private investigator in 1937 Los Angeles, after working for a guy named Curly, is hired to follow water commissioner Hollis Mulwray by a woman pretending to be Hollis’s wife. Hollis ends up dead, and Gittes teams up with Hollis’s real wife, Evelyn, to solve the murder. A man named Yelburton has taken over Hollis’s job and hired a thug named Mulvahill, who also works for Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father, who turns out to be murderer of Hollis. In the end, the police kill Evelyn and Cross claims Catherine, his daughter by his other daughter. (Yes, this is hard to follow.)

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A 1930s private detective discovers a massive conspiracy to control Los Angeles
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
The ultimate cynic finds out he’s actually naïve.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
A journey into the world’s darkness, but with the future of LA at stake.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Not really.  There’s a tremendous amount of plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Does the story present a unique relationship?
A detective and the woman who he was fooled into thinking he was representing.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Noah Cross, the cops, etc.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Well, his greatest suspicion, that the world is hopelessly corrupt
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
He’s particularly offended at having been duped.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
He has to care about a client, he has to go back to Chinatown, etc.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, he thinks so, anyway, but he fails to solve it.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes and yes.  He solves the crime, gets Evelyn killed, and feels personally destroyed.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Lots of mystery, sex and death.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The cut-up nose.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The nose-cutting, the mother-sister scene.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
That’s not Mrs. Mulwray, the incest.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Only somewhat. His exasperation with his cuckolded clients is somewhat amusing.  The movie makes up for its lack of hero-identification by making him extra-resourceful.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes.  The backstory is interesting, but it’s not what defines him.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
A top detective.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 A bitter ex-cop, totured by his failures.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
He has two metaphor families. He speaks like a refined gentleman-servant (“What seems to be the problem?”) most of the time, but the language of a thug occasionally peeks out. (“All of it quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass [catches himself] Excuse me!)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Won’t listen, bulldozes over you, nails you with inconsistences and evidense he’s uncovered.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Not really.  For most of the movie, he has no client, and he has little reason for uncovering this conspiracy. We’ll discuss this more.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
He says to the fake Mrs. Mulwray, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?’ You’re better off not knowing.”  He will change his mind about this then come back around in the final minutes. 
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Nail Mulwray for cheating.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: that he won’t get paid. Hidden: that’s he’s a sleaze/leach.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes, get’s injured, feels hurt.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Too cold.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Coolly analytical and effectively deceptive. A great detective.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.  He claims he’s not, and he tries not to be, but in fact he’s so curious that he spends most of the movie investigating without a client.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.  The trick with the watch is great.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Respect the client, don’t accept being lied to, be superior.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Even his assistants lack his resourcefulness and eye for detail.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Very much so.  He’s openky surly and defiant of everyone.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s in a meeting with a client
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes, he’s the boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, he’s a master detective, and he was a cop before that.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Social problem: seen as a dishonest creep.  Internal flaw: too cold and cruel.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
The man next to him in the barbershop attacks his work, then he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray, who humiliates him.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
He decides to follow up.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Well, the movie is 18 minutes in by the time he finds out what’s really going on, so it’s too late for any hesitation.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Lots of people: thugs, farmers, etc.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He thinks he can find Hollis and clear this up.  After Hollis is dead, it’s unclear what his goal is, but he still seems confident in his abilities before he gets cut.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
He’s certainly overcondient, and he enjoys running circles around the cops such as when he uses Yelburton’s card
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Yes and no.  There are two disasters  (He gets his nose cut, gets knocked out by the farmers a few scenes later) but neither of them feels like a momumentous disillusioning midpoint crash.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
He looks past the surface of things, demands the truth out of Evelyn and others.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Eventually figures out Evelyn isn’t bad.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, the cops are closing in on both Jake and Evelyn, he’s falling in love with her, etc.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
The truth about Catherine is devastating.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, finds out the truth about Evelyn and Catherine (and the glasses). 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
When he asks Cross ”How much better can you eat?”, he’s also criticizing his own predatory work ethic earlier in the movie.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He realizes he has to get Evelyn and Catherine out of town, away from Cross and the police.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He’s fairly proactive throughout, despite his claims to the contrary. 
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Well, it’s his own fault, because he called the police himself, but he didn’t realize the trouble it would cause.  He also foolishly chooses to confront Cross in the middle of his attempts to spirit Evelyn out of the country (In the script, this made more sense. We’ll discuss it later.)
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, most everybody: his operative, all of the police, Cross, Mulvahill, Evelyn, Catherine, and Curly.  Only Yelburton and the man with the knife are missing.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
The same moment.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
There’s just a brief moment after the finale, when he’s told “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” 
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/20 The scene where Jake confront Noah Cross with the glasses
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
We’ve been falsely led to suspect that he might betray Evelyn and Catherine, so we’re worried about him.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
It starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
They’re right by the murder site.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Yes and no: they’re both eager to have this conversation, but they’re both standing, indicating that they’d each like to get this over with and get somewhere else as quickly as possible.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Cross starts pontificating about tide pools.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
We know that Jake has to get across town soon to meet Curly.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Both Gittes and Cross recoil from each other’s harshness.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We quickly discover that we were wrong to doubt Gittes, so we’re on his side.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Gittes wants to pin the murder on Cross (and then what?), Cross wants his daughter.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: You killed Mulwray. Suppressed: You want to rape your other daughter.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Gittes implies it: “Where’s the girl?” “She’s with her mother.”
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
They’re both suprisingly cool customers given what they’re discussing.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He asks Cross to read the obituary column in low light, forcing him to take out his (back-up pair of?) reading glasses, thus proving that they’re the same as the ones he has.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
The obituary is handed over.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
The obituary column represents the conspiracy, the glasses represent the murder. Each accusation becomes real and concrete when the object is presented.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Gittes is forced to take Cross to Catherine.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, Cross has trapped Gittes instead of the other way around.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Answered: Who killed Mulwray? Many questions remain, but no new ones are posed by this scene.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Implied: How will Gittes get out of this.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re very afraid for our hero and the people he was supposed to be protecting.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, even Cross, who gets to defend himself.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Yes and no.  Gittes comes off as cynical and self-interested, but if you actually try to track his motivations in the movie, he’s actually acting in the public interest most of the time, against his own self-interest or the interests of his clients. More about this later.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.  Gittes bristles when asked about the past.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Yes.  Gittes is strictly professional.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, very much so.  Towne seems to have made himself an expert on detective work.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Evelyn MF: Snooty wife (“Certainly not!”) DPT: Cool, DAS: Lie,
Noah Cross MF: Patriarchal, DPT: Affable but vicious, DAS: Blunt accusation, admit all
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes.  “Do you know what happens to nosy guys?  They lose their noses.”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
They’re all three-dimensional (or no-dimensional, we never get to know his assistants at all, for instance)
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
When Evelyn tries to overcome his reluctance to talk about Chinatown.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes.  Exposition is doled out very slowly and carefully, with no info-dumps.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
One of the most famous.
Part #6: Tone 7/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Detective, period piece.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
The mystery is solved, but the bad guy gets away with it and the femme fatale is exonerated of any wrongdoing before she’s killed.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
No.  This movie has major dramatic question problems, as we’ll discuss.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
No.  The narration was cut, which made it feel more immediate, but removed the glue that held the scenes together, giving the movie a hallucinatory lack of scene-to-scene logic.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
He mentions another woman who he tried to help only to get her hurt.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Tons of it.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Jake cares “as little as possible” about the problems of Curly and the fake Mrs. Mulwray, then gets very involved by the end.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
The dramatic question has shifted many times before we reach the end.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Honor the past or build the future.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Jake sputters “I make an honest living.” Does he?  Can anyone?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Take sleazy cases or not? Publicize the results or not? Take on two clients with competing interests or not?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Very much so. It’s a great picture of how conspiracies work.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Very much so.  The nature of Los Angeles is a constant topic, and it’s based on deep research (which was then totally fictionalized)
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  It’s as much about Watergate as it is about 1937.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Very much so.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
Very much so: Water references and imagery are everywhere, as are references to eyes.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The reading glasses, the property ledger sheet, the watch, the obituary column.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
It is better to honor the past than shoddily and unjustly build the future.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, the heroes get the opposite of what they want.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Very much so.  If you go back and think about it, little of it makes sense, but the audience doesn’t care.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Very much so.  He chooses to “forget about it”

Final Score: 114 out of 122

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your Ending Shouldn’t Make Your “Point”

The meaning of your story is created by the dilemma that drives every scene, not merely by its conclusion. You are putting your characters in a situation that reflects a powerful and ironic emotional dilemma that will resonate with your audience. Watching your characters grapple with that dilemma, scene by scene, will create the meaning of your story as you go, regardless of the eventual outcome.

The endings of some great stories have been reconsidered and reversed at the last second. Some movie have decided to flip the ending during production, because the director and writer got to know the characters better as the footage came in, and they belatedly decided that it would be more powerful to have the opposite outcome.

In the script for the great downbeat skiing drama Downhill Racer, Robert Redford has acted like a cocky jerk all season, and his coach has tried and failed to humble him. In the world championship at the end, Redford has been seeded way down in the rotation with all the weaker skiers who have to use the bad snow after the superstars are done with it. Nevertheless, he pulls out an amazing time, beating all the great skiers who were seeded far ahead of him.

Everyone had thought the competition was over, but now he has leapt out from the ranks of the obscure late competitors and into first place. Suddenly everybody swarms around him in awe, even his coach, instantly treating him like the superstar he always thought he was. It was all worth it: He proved everybody wrong. …But then everybody suddenly turns away: an even lower-ranked skier is now coming down the mountain, and he’s doing even better than Redford!

In Oakley Hall’s original novel and James Salter’s original script, this new skier does indeed beat Redford’s time, and Redford is instantly abandoned: his dream of glory lasted only a few minutes, and now it’s gone, leaving him to face the wreckage he has made of his life and relationships.

Producer-star Redford and director Michael Ritchie loved that ending, but as they shot the movie, they decided that it would actually be better to let Redford win. Is this just another case of a “Hollywood ending” being tacked on? No, it was more of a subtle tweak…

In the final movie, the same sequence of events happens, and everybody turns away to see this new skier who is beating Redford’s time…but then that skier has a horrible accident halfway down and ends up a crumpled wreck on the slopes. All of those fickle admirers instantly lose interest in the new guy and turn their adoration back towards Redford…but he can’t smile anymore. Yes, he’s a champion now, but he’s seen his future. All of the adoration is fleeting and phony, and he will always one wreck away from becoming a forgotten has-been.

Still, that’s a different ending, right? It makes a different point. The original point could be summarized as “Don’t get too cocky”, while the new point is “Cockiness can pay off, but becoming a champion is ultimately meaningless.”

I think that the new ending is clearly better …but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The total events of the story have already created the story’s meaning, regardless of how it ends.

Chinatown also changed the ending on the set to be much more powerful: In the original, the villain is killed by the heroine, who is taken off to jail, despite the efforts of our hero to explain why she had to do it. In the final version, the cops kill the heroine and the villain wins absolutely, totally devastating our hero (and the audience).

But would the movie have been rendered meaningless if they had gone with the original ending in which the villain was killed? Of course not. The ending would have had less punch, and a totally different “point” would have been made, but once again it was the total events of the story that created the meaning, not the final conclusion. The overall thematic dilemma, “Must you destroy the present in order to create the future?”, has already been driven home by every scene. By the time we get to the end, it doesn’t really matter what the “point” is, we’ve already felt the theme in our bones.