Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is the essential Los Angeles film for just about anybody who isn’t a science fiction obsessive (Blade Runner), a thirtysomething woman (Clueless), or a jerk (Swingers).
For all the movies Hollywood has made about its hometown, Chinatown captures a definitive combination of the city’s varied landscapes, its shiny veneer and sinister depths, its car-centric beauty (much of it’s shot through windshields or in rearviews), its greed, and its desperate relationship with nature, all in a self-reflexive (so Hollywood) take on noir (so LA).
The story of seedy PI Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, and his discovery of a plot to parch, then purchase, then annex, then irrigate the San Fernando Valley, is such a good myth that by now it’s just about replaced the real story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the birth of modern LA. (It’s not wildly off, but it’s not in any way a faithful history; it also takes place in the 1930s while the events it fictionalizes happened in the 1910s.)
The movie was released 45 years ago today, on June 20, 1974, and to mark the day we’ve mapped out all of its real-life locations, with help from this old Los Angeles Times article, The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, and Filming Locations of Chicago and Los Angeles. Take the Chinatown tour this way: