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The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 30, 2009 6:26PM

The Ending Roman Polanski's Chinatown Was Supposed to Have

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chinatown poster


In 1975, film critic Pauline Kael wrote that the 1974 film noir Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, was originally supposed to have a different ending.


In the script by Robert Towne (who also wrote the screenplays for The Last Detail and Shampoo) the monster Noah Cross was killed by his daughter, Evelyn. Evelyn had been raped and made pregnant by her father. In Towne's version, Evelyn killed her father to protect her daughter from the old man's predations.


chinatown dunaway 2

 Evelyn tries to save her daughter


This is the kind of ending you can imagine Raymond Chandler writing. Evelyn might die along with her father, the only way to put an end to his evil, but there would be some hope, with Evelyn's daughter having a chance at salvation.


Polanski changed Robert Towne's ending to let Noah Cross destroy Evelyn and take possession of his grand-daughter as his new slave. Why did Cross do this? Because he could. Because he was rich and politically powerful and normal human beings didn't matter next to his whims. He may even have thought of himself as an artist.


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 Noah Cross: "The evil that men do lives after them . . ."


“Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown.” That's a movie cliché now, but there's a reason people remember those words from that film—they express the time they were written (the 1970s) as much as the time when they were supposed to have been spoken (the 1930s).


Against power, right doesn't stand a chance.


Pauline Kael called Polanski a “Gothic-minded absurdist,” which is understandable after watching Polanski's 1968 film Rosemary's Baby, another movie where a mother is forced to accede to evil to protect her child.


chinatown polanski

 The director as actor


Polanski rewrote the past in 1974. Three years later he rewrote his own future.


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interesting....never heard that before.
Regardless of the re-write and the troubles of the director, "Chinatown" remains a masterpiece.....
Nelly - Thanks for reading and commenting.

Gary - I agree. It's hard to argue that the ending of the movie isn't more true to life than a more hopeful conclusion would be.

Any fan of Chinatown should read David Thomson's novel Suspects. It tells more of the stories of film noir characters and how they might be connected. Noah Cross is one of the major characters and it's astounding to find out who he has manipulated in his life.
"Chinatown" is a perfect movie for the mid-70's. When I consider the great films of that era, many of them exude a fatalism that the little guy is doomed either to be destroyed by corrupt power, or to become a part of it. Case in point: "Godfather" and "Godfather II", "The Parallax View", "The Conversation". I'm sure I could come up with a lot more. These reflect a society disenchanted with the failure of 1960's idealism, and mirroring the obvious corruption of Watergate-era government. I'd say the revised ending to "Chinatown" fits the paradigm perfectly.
Maybe Polanski believed his own script and felt the rich and powerful can get away with it. While it does happen, not all the time. As far as I am concerned he escaped justice for 35 years now it finally caught up with him.
"'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough. "--Noah Cross, in Chinatown. imitates art?

One of the reasons I've always loved "Chinatown" is that it was REAL. Yes, power corrupts and very often triumphs. But Jake Gittes saw that and tried to stop it anyway. That someone got hurt--this time, just like the last time--had to happen.

Thanx for the update--and I'll look for "Suspects"--sounds like a good companion piece.
Great take; movies seem to reflect contemporary mores. I always thought it strange and sad that this guy would have imitated the actions of the perpetrator of his wife's murder by plying a very young teen with drugs and then committing the acts he pled guilty to.
Please remember that nothing in Polanski's own history told him otherwise. He grew up being hunted by Nazis (real ones). His parents got him smuggled out of a ghetto, then were exported to camps (mother died, father survived).

Years later his wife and several friends were killed by Manson's followers.

Still later he was arrested for rape in a he said-she said "Foxes" scenario, and a power-hungry judge/district attorney tried to use his guilty plea to make names for themselves.

What was going through his mind when he fled the country? It was't the Nazis he was fleeing - he returned to where he was hunted by them.

Was it the fear that these ambitious men were going to throw him into the same prison - the same cell - as Manson? Is that possibility still real today? We Californians haven't changed. The political zeitgeist hasn't changed.
Didn't know that. Interesting. But Polanski's ending strikes me as much more powerful. Might frequently beats right - as his own case seems to demonstrate.
I've always loved that movie, and even though it's tragic, just Tragic, when Evelyn dies, Every Time, it's somehow just ... right. It's the only way it can end. She's too damaged to ever survive and thrive. And the daughter being coopted by her father/grandfather - it's very, I don't know, Russian in its perfect perversion.

I wouldn't change a thing.
Procopius -

Thanks. Maybe it just reflects my age, but the films of that era are the ones that mean the most to me.

M Todd -

A lot of people agree with you. And it doesn't seem to matter whether you're American or European. A commentator in The Guardian asked if Polanski would have the support of artists if he were a Catholic priest instead of a movie maker.

Leeandra -

Absolutely right. Look at all the former Dixiecrats and Klan members in Congress who've rehabilitated themselves.

This is irrelevant to Polanski's current legal problems, but filmmakers from his generation made movies about real life. I can't get into directors like Quentin Tarantino because they seem to only be making movies about movies.

Stellaa - Thanks very much.

elsema03 -

You'll like Suspects. There's a short sequel in Thomson's collection of fiction and non-fiction, Beneath Mulholland.

Daniel -

I know what you mean. According to Christopher Sandford's biography, after 1976 Polanski contracted with the French magazine Vogue Homme to photograph " 'several adolescent girls' around the world in order to 'show them as they really are.' " Sandford says he meant 13 or 14 year old. Sometimes Americans are hypocritically prudish about children and sex, but a thirteen-year-old is a child, not a model.

Runaway Serfer -

I can't dispute anything you said, either. A lot of people don't remember (or never knew) that Charles Manson was not present at what became known as the Tate killings.

I want to thank everyone for reading my post so carefully and taking it seriously.
As a work of art, Chinatown stands with the greats. Its fatalism about the triumph of evil subverts American mythos, but probably fits a Polish one quite well. So far as Polanski's guilt or innocence, the circumstances were shady, the deal the judge made with him was shady. But, bottom line, we haven't had a trial.
Yeah well ... all very true, but the stubborn fact remains (and even Towne admitted it, finally) -- Polanski's ending (he actually wrote the last five minutes, including that iconic last line, after Tpowne walked off the production) is just... better. It fits into the moral universe of the film and takes its dark premises to their final conclusions. It satisfies us because we know it's true. The happy ending Towne planned would have wrecked one of the greatest films of all time. That Polanski is also a creep ... well, so was Robert Frost; and Picasso ... and on and on. Excluding artists for defects of character is a mug's game.

One other point ... a part of Towne's ending that should have been there: he has a fantastic collection of photographs, all taken from the Hollywood Hills looking down into the San Fernando Valley, from the 30s up to 60s. He wanted an on-screen montage of those pictures to play over the credits, showing how the landscape changed thanks to the real-life scams he dramatized. That would have been great. Oh well.
Great post…great conversation.

Great movie…great acting.

At this point, American justice should have opted for punishing Polanski by refusing to allow him into this country ever again…and making a big production out of the exclusion.

Dragging him back here is tawdry at best…and we will end up looking like a bunch of hypocritical bumpkins no matter how the judicial proceedings work out.

The Swiss ought to have their collective asses kicked.

But once again…great post mostly about a great movie.
Frank, since Polanski was already convicted of the crime and was out on appeal and he will most likely get the sentence he should have gotten 35 years ago.

And I don't think it will gain much of a crowd or any editorial. Even hollywood knows which way the wind blows and will not come to the defense of a child rapist in the light of day. And besides anyone under 50 will not care because they were not alive or watch his movies.
"If you do not like the past, change it." -William L. Burton

“One's past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.” -Oscar Wilde

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” - Paul Boese

"Our vision of the present is distorted by mingling it with the past, and the present is further distorted by imperfect memory bringing a distorted past forward as a cloudy filter, making it difficult to see the present truth." - JJ Dewey
Norwonk, ConnieMack, Max -

Chinatown is one of the great American films. (It's funny how so many of the great American films have been directed by foreigners living here.)

Steven -

That photograph montage would have been perfect.

Frank -


cybersalt -

I may have to adopt that William L. Burton quotation as my motto. It's brilliant. And it explains so much about human behaavior. Thank you.
I feel like Polanski saw this as a happy ending, considering his personal life.
Roman Polanski did not rewrite the past in 1974. Nor did Roman Polanski three years later rewrite his own future in USA.

What is true is that Against an Abuse of Power- Right stands no chance.

And currently in California - Might Makes Right. Here's why...

In Roman Polanski's case in 1977 a plea bargain agreement got corrupted into bait and switch justice, when a photograph of Roman Polanski sitting next to smiling German girls at the Oktoberfest infuriated the Santa Monica Judge so much, that the Judge retaliated against Polanski by reneging on the plea bargain agreement, was about to sentence Polanski to a second prison term, and deprive Roman Polanski of his right to fight deportation,

This lack of a stable judicial system, and this lack of Judicial integrity in a Santa Monica California court frightened Polanski so much that he fled the country. He self deported if you will.

Meanwhile in California when there is something to be covered up – and gained financially, politically, a personal score to settle - there will always be bait and switch justice in California courtrooms & chambers, and this should not be confused with real Justice.

The bait & switch operations don't not only manfest in Roman Polanski’s case, since California Governmental Statutes also aid and abet California's bait and switch justice which does not treat people equally, or afford people due process of law, and where they are deprived of their civil rights, under the color of law, and in some cases assaulted and battered and falsely imprisoned.

In addition, in the future there may be a chilling effect on Hollywood Movie Directors through the threat of being prosecuted and persecuted for a movie that ends in saying “Forget it Jake it’s Chinatown”

In Polanski's case it seems to have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but he didn't cause the abuse of Judicial and Prosecutorial Power.
Los Angeles is using Roman Polanski's fame to promote their own political agenda and lust for power like a bunch of blood sucking vampires.

Los Angeles would be better served to dismiss the Polanski case, and not use Polanski to push their trademark & signature bait and switch justice in sexual assault cases, which runs Rampant & Rampart in Santa Monica Courtrooms which are run like back alleys, since bait and and switch Justice is utilized, and the Justice ain’t blind.

To continue this very sad case after 32 years, is not justice, it is hypocrisy, and does serve the purpose of diverting attention away from the double standards, the Judicial and Prosecutorial misconduct and discrimination that started in Polanski's case back in 1977.

Its continuation now after 32 years is only promoting the agony of the victim, a child who was pawned off by her mother, taken advantage of by a 17 year old American male in addition to Polanski, and is now being re-victimized again by County of Los Angeles & D.A. Steve Cooley and his band of merry prosecutors who would rather point the finger at Polanski, than shine a light in a place where the sun don’t shine.

The torture ,when will it end in Los Angeles...Or should we all say once more

"Forget it Jake, Its Chinatown"
I hate the cliché that all powerful and wealthy people are bad and malevolent! Have all people with money raped their children? Have all wealthy people murdered? This is such a fallacious argument it is ridiculous, and those who promulgate it should be ashamed of themselves!

If you were to come up with a great idea that would ultimately make you wealthy, would you begin raping and killing people? Oh, maybe you would not be that bad, do you think you would become some lesser criminal? It seems to me that those who have little or no money are the folks that are more likely to kill, rape, or engage in some other manner of criminal activity.

People of wealth typically run or own businesses. They make jobs for people. They make for the possibility that their employees will make a better life for themselves. Perhaps these employees will come up with some great idea and become wealthy themselves. Is that not a good thing? Is that not what our country was founded upon? Were people like Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere bad people?

The movie, “Chinatown” is a great movie! It has a wonderfully complex plot, and is the kind of movie that can be watched again, and again, and you will see new and different complexities at each viewing. It’s a movie though folks, a work of fiction for crying out loud! Those that relate to it as factual or typical of mans nature are sad and pathetic.