Beat Sheet of Chinatown: A WRITER’S Film Noir

Starting a new story from scratch is something every writer should do at least a few times a year. I know, with all the revisions and under-developed stories and other obligations, you don’t have time to, but this is what we do. We can’t afford not to.  I typically start by watching a few films in related genres, sometimes making beat sheets of them.

Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, is as old now as film noir was when it was a neo-noir back in the 70s. Film noir is not a genre I love, to be honest. It demands too big a suspension of disbelief for too little payoff. Its heroes are always depressing. When I read a new homage to the genre – and I have come across more than a few young writers who can’t shake it – it feels like male fantasies of schlubby, squirmy guys hooking up with gorgeous women and then losing the women and learning that the world sucks even worse than they thought, and that’s saying a lot, because they thought it was a moral cesspool already.

Jack Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray.

Jake Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray.

Although Chinatown ends with a botched ghetto rendezvous by night, its return to the film noir disposition is almost a letdown after it’s taken you to so many other places. It has lots in common with the conspiracy and political thrillers of its day, and the ones since: A hero who’s unquestionably a decent guy stumbles into a conspiracy, pries deeper, discovers it’s much vaster than he thought, gets tempted to let it go, but circumstances including lust (and his own good heart) force him to try setting things right.

You almost have to just call Chinatown a film noir out of convenience, because it’s hard to pin it to any sub-genre. Thriller sub-genres are defined by the nexus of evil. Is it a political thriller, a corporate thriller, a crime thriller, a supernatural thriller? As I stared at the blank page this morning, I figured there are probably more psychopathic killer scripts than there are psychopathic killers, and I refuse to play that game, even though I see why so many writers choose it: It’s so easy!

Legend has it that director Roman Polanski chose the Chinatown ending we all know. If the writer had his way, the heroine/love interest would have killed the villain. If it were a straight-up conspiracy thriller, it would end with a fight to the death between the hero and the villain. Instead it retreats into film noir (il)logic. I always say that a film’s denouement belongs to the director: by that time it’s out of our hands. Up to that point, though, Chinatown is Robert Towne’s film, because he concocted a plot so economical and evil so pure and yet believable: murder, corruption, incest, and…real estate!

Chinatown Beat Sheet

Private investigator Jake Gittes is kind to a client named Curly while breaking the news to him about his wife having an affair.

Gittes gets hired by a Mrs. Mulwray to trail her husband. He tries refusing.

Gittes follows Mulwray’s very boring life watching reservoir runoff. Mulwray is the Water Department chief engineer who is blocking the construction of a reservoir. The one juicy bit Gittes’ team manages to get is a bunch of photos of an argument between Mulwray and a gray-haired guy.

Finally catches Mulwray on an apparent date with his mistress.

It’s a tabloid sensation. In a barbershop: Gittes tells off a stranger who disrespects his occupation.

The real Mrs. Mulwray visits him, and serves him legal papers.

Now Gittes wonders who set Mulwray up. He tries visiting Mulwray at the Water Department. Snoops, finds evidence he is keeping tabs on runoff from reservoirs.

Mulwray’s water dept associate Yelburton comes to shoo Gittes away, and Gittes steals some of Yelburton’s cards. Sees that the department has hired a security thug named Mulvahill whom he knows from his police days.

Gittes tries visiting Mulwray at home, and talks to the Mrs instead. He lets on that he’s trying to figure out who set them up. She agrees to drop the suit.

Lies his way into a restricted reservoir (using Yelburton’s card). Finds his old frenemy Escobar from the police dept there. Mulwray has just died by drowning.

Escobar’s line of questioning Mrs.Mulwray indicates that they figure it is a suicide. She hastily decides not to deny that SHE’s the one who hired Gittes in the first place: Now she is  partners with him in a sense.

At the morgue, Gittes hears that hobos who sleep in the rivers and pipes are drowning.

Talks to a Mexican boy in the river bed about how it rises at odd times: more evidence that that’s what Mulwray was trying to figure out.

At dusk, he jumps the fence into the reservoir, nearly gets swept away by water. Gets his nose sliced by water dept thugs.

Gets a call from an Ida Sessions – the original, fake Mrs. Mulwray – who advises him to scan the obituaries for whoever hired her to set up Mulwray.

Meets Mrs. Mulwray for lunch. Refuses payment from her. (Also finds out her maiden name is Cross.) Lays it on the line: Her husband got killed because he had figured out a vast coverup of water-wasting.  He leaves dramatically before she can tell him more.

He stalks Yelburton at the water dept office. Sees photos of a Noah Cross on the wall, learns that old Mr. Cross and Mulwray started the water dept as a private company.

Goes directly to Yelburton, and threatens to bring his story to the press…invites Yelburton to help him nail the big interests who are behind the scheme.

Mrs. Mulwray visits. She’s still hiding something, but they finally agree that he’ll work for her. She gets tweaky when he talks about her father Noah Cross.

He visits Noah Cross at his ranch way out in Malibu. (To get there he meets one of his people at a private fishing club called the Albacore Club.) Cross says he is trying to protect his daughter and offers to double Gittes’ pay if he’ll find Ida Sessions, ostensibly to find out who’s behind the crime…seems like bullshit.

Gittes searches public records. Discovers that much of the land in the western valley is being bought up…but by whom?

Visits an orange farm to follow up on Yelburton’s story, that the water runoff is explicable because the water dept is giving some water to orange growers.  He gets assaulted by the farmers, learns that they’re being harassed by the water department.

Mrs. Mulwray picks him up. Comparing the land sale names to the obituaries, he discovers that the land in the valley is being bought up, on paper, by the poor residents of an old folks home.

At that home, one of the ladies is making a tapestry with a hunk of fabric from the Albacore Club: the home is a charity of the rich social club, and the club members are in turn using the old folks as a front for their con. Thugs come to get him, but he fights his way out, and Mrs. Mulwray swoops in in her car to rescue him.

She redresses his wound. They sleep together. She asks him about his time with the police force in Chinatown (with Escobar); he vaguely tells her about a time he inadvertently hurt a woman.

He follows Mrs. Mulwray on a secret errand. She appears to have her husband’s mistress captive in a house. He confronts her, and she explains that the woman is her sister.

He gets a call saying that Ida Sessions wants to see him, and is given an address. Next day, he goes there and finds her murdered; Detective Escobar is there, and they spar. Escobar doesn’t buy his story about the water conspiracy, and demands that Gittes bring Mrs M in for murder. Key bit of evidence: Mulwray had salt water in his lungs.

Gittes goes looking for Mrs M and discovers eye glasses in their fish pond, which is salt water!

He finds her in the hideout house, and calls Escobar with the address. Demands to know what’s up with the mistress, and she finally levels with him: She was not Mulwray’s mistress but her own daughter/sister, the product of her own affair with her father when she was a teenager.  (She corrects him: the glasses are NOT Mulwray’s, they’re bifocals.)

He sends her off to her butler’s house in Chinatown and gets his guys to say they’ll meet him there in 2 hours.

Escobar comes, and Gittes bullshits him by taking them to Curly’s house and escaping out the back door. He hires Curly to come by Chinatown that night and take the ladies to a boat they can use to get to Mexico.

Surmising that Old Man Cross is the killer – since the glasses found in the salt water pond were his bifocals – he lures Cross to the Mulwray house by saying he found his daughter/granddaughter for him.

Cross takes him to Chinatown at gun point seeming like he is just trying to get his daughter/granddaughter; when they arrive, the cops are there, to arrest Gittes.

Mrs. Mulwray confronts her dad, pulls a gun on him, and gets shot by the police. Cross gets possession of his daughter/granddaughter, and Gittes gets told to go home.


  1. […] Beat Sheet of Chinatown: A WRITER’S Film Noir ( […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: