Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was inspired by the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley. The Robert Evans production, a Paramount Pictures release, was the director's last film in the United States, and features many elements of film noir, particularly a multi-layered story that is part mystery and part psychological drama.
In 1991 the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and it is frequently listed as among the best in world cinema. The 1975Academy Awards saw it nominated eleven times, with an Oscar going to Robert Towne for Best Original Screenplay. The Golden Globe Awards honored it for Best Drama, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. The American Film Institute placed it second among mystery films in 2008.
A sequel, The Two Jakes, was released in 1990, again starring Nicholson, who also directed, with Robert Towne returning to write the screenplay. The film failed to generate the acclaim of its predecessor.
A woman identifying herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Ladd) hires private investigator J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson) to carry out surveillance on her husband Hollis I. Mulwray (Zwerling), the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes tails him, hears him publicly oppose the creation of a new reservoir, and shoots photographs of him with a young woman (Palmer) that are published on the front page of the following day's paper. Upon his return to his office, Gittes is confronted by a beautiful woman who, after establishing that the two of them have never met, irately informs him she is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) and that he can expect a lawsuit.
Realizing he was set up, Gittes figures whoever did it wants to get Mulwray, but, before he can question the husband, Lieutenant Lou Escobar (Lopez) fishes Mulwray, drowned, from a freshwater reservoir. Suspicious of murder, Gittes investigates and notices that, although huge quantities of water are released from the reservoir every night, the land is almost completely dry. Gittes is confronted by Water Department Security Chief Claude Mulvihill (Jenson) with a henchman (Polanski) who slashes the investigator's nose. Back at his office, he receives a call from Ida Sessions, an actress whom he recognizes as the bogus Mrs. Mulwray. She is afraid to identify her employer, but provides a clue: the name of one of "those people" is in that day's obituaries.
Gittes learns that Mrs. Mulwray's husband was once the business partner of her father, Noah Cross (Huston), so he meets Cross for lunch at his personal club. Cross offers to double Gittes' fee to search for Mulwray's missing girlfriend, plus a bonus if he succeeds. Gittes visits the hall of records where he discovers that a large amount of acreage in the "northwest valley" has changed ownership. Further investigation there leads to an attack on him by angry landowners; they believe he is an agent of the water department, attempting to force them out by demolishing their water tanks and poisoning their wells.
Gittes's review of the obituaries uncovers a former resident of the Mar Vista Inn retirement home, who is one of the valley's new landowners. He infers that Mulwray was murdered when he learned that the new reservoir would be used to irrigate the newly purchased properties. Evelyn and Gittes bluff their way into Mar Vista and confirm that the real estate deals are surreptitiously completed in the names of some of its residents. After fleeing from Mulvihill and his thugs, they hide at Evelyn's house, where they nurse each other's wounds and end up in bed together.
Early morning, Evelyn has to leave suddenly; she warns him that her father is dangerous and crazy. Gittes manages to follow her car to a house where he observes her with Mulwray's girlfriend. He confronts Evelyn, who finally confesses that the woman is her sister.
The next day, an anonymous call draws Gittes to Ida Sessions' apartment; he finds her murdered, with Escobar waiting for his arrival. Escobar pressures him because the coroner's report found salt water in Mulwray's lungs, indicating that the body was moved after death. Escobar suspects Evelyn of the murder, and insists Gittes produce her quickly or he'll face charges of his own.
Gittes returns to Evelyn's mansion. There, he discovers a pair of bifocals in her salt water garden pond and finds her servants packing her bags. His suspicions aroused, he confronts Evelyn about her "sister", whom she then claims is her daughter Katherine. Gittes slaps her repeatedly until she cries out "She's my sister and my daughter!", then tearfully asks Gittes if it is "too tough" for him to understand what happened with her father. She points out that the eyeglasses are not her husband's, as he did not wear bifocals.
Gittes makes plans for the two women to flee to Mexico. He instructs Evelyn to meet him at her butler's home in Chinatown. Gittes summons Cross to the Mulwray home to settle their deal for the girl. Cross admits his intention to annex to the City of Los Angeles the northwest valley, then irrigate and develop it. Gittes produces Cross's bifocals—a link to Mulwray's murder. Mulvihill appears and confiscates the glasses, then forces Jake to drive him with Cross to the women.
When the three reach the Chinatown hiding place, the police are already there and detain Gittes. Evelyn will not allow Cross to approach Katherine, and when he is undeterred she shoots him in the arm and drives away with Katherine. As the car speeds off, the police open fire, killing Evelyn. Cross clutches Katherine and leads her away, while Escobar orders Gittes released, along with his associates. One of them urges "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."