The 1974 Jack Nicholson vehicle Chinatown is one of the great sun-bleached neo-noirs, but did you ever wonder what inspired the seventies classic? Roman Polanski‘s bleak, brutal Chinatown is infamous for its grim, hopeless coda. The film was released among fellow neo-noir classics The Long Goodbye and Night Moves but even among these distinguished titles, Jack Nicholson’s outing as beleaguered P.I Jake Gittes stands out as a uniquely vicious bit of crime cinema history.
Like a lot of seventies hits Chinatown‘s plot is a convoluted and ultimately deeply cynical tale of double-crossing and deception between corrupt authorities, sleazy politicians, and soulless corporate overlords. Despite focusing on the potentially boring subject of water rights, Chinatown‘s water-tight screenplay ensures that the film is a constantly engaging and intense mystery which went on to influence everything from Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner to Paul Thomas Anderson‘s underrated Inherent Vice. But the film’s tragic, complex scheme has a surprising real-life origin.
The film’s convoluted mystery plot owes a lot to classic noirs like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, which should come as no surprise to film fans as the director of the latter, John Huston, plays Chinatown’s reprehensible antagonist Noah Cross. The film’s conspiracy follows some unscrupulous businessman bribing politicians to steal a smaller town’s water supply in order to give the city of LA cheaper access to more resources. And unlike so many movies which claim to be, the story of this critically acclaimed film noir is almost entirely true. The real-life plot was a story of intrigue and chicanery worthy of the film it inspired, although fortunately there’s less incest in the reality of California’s one-sided “water wars.”
If anything, Chinatown played down the extent of the corruption involved in the water wars, with the real-life conspiracy implicating everyone from local philanthropists right up to the president himself. The unforgettably vile mastermind of the film’s conspiracy Noah Cross is based on a combination (to avoid any possible litigation) of real-life figures Frederick Eaton and civil engineer William Mullholland. Yes, that Mulholland. As in, the LA figure so famous that the iconic Mulholland Drive is named in his honor (not to mention David Lynch‘s mind-melting mystery Mulholland Drive). Between them, Eaton and Mulholland devised a plan to construct an aqueduct to divert the water supply of neighboring Owens Valley into LA.
So surely the valley was an uninhabited stretch of disused land, right? Actually, Owens Valley was filled with furious local farmers who needed that water for their crops (as well as, well, basic survival). But Eaton and Mulholland pulled numerous not-quite-legal maneuvers to ensure they accessed rights to the water, including exaggerating LA’s lack of water to gain public support, buying the land required for an aqueduct as private citizens and selling it back to the city for a profit, and even meeting then-President Theodore Roosevelt in-person to ensure he’d support their (at best immoral, likely illegal) endeavor. So maybe it’s no surprise that later noir films like Blade Runner imagined 2019 LA as a rain-soaked wasteland, after all the havoc that city officials wrought on the area’s ecosystem for personal profit.