How Real-Life Crimes Gave Us the Film “Chinatown”

Screenwriter Robert Towne balanced the real and the imagined

Detail from the cover of "The Big Goodbye"
Sam Wasson's new book "The Big Goodbye" explores the making of a classic film.
Flatiron Books
By Tobias Carroll / February 5, 2020 7:00 am

Since its release in 1974, the film Chinatown has become a classic — a haunting (and haunted) detective story with a host of memorable lines, characters and scenes. Even its director’s subsequent actions haven’t overshadowed the film’s reputation. A high-profile prequel series in in the works for Netflix — and that’s only one way in which the film’s legacy is still a going concern.

This week brings with it the release of Sam Wasson’s book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Wasson has a penchant for artistically challenging, psychologically complex subjects; he’s also written an acclaimed biography of Bob Fosse.

In an excerpt from the book  at CrimeReads, Wasson breaks down the crimes — some real, some fictional — that helped influence the making of Chinatown. Wasson quotes Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne on what ended up drawing him to the works of legendary crime fiction author Raymond Chandler:

“I realized that I had in common with Chandler that I loved L.A. and missed the L.A. that I loved. It was gone, basically, but so much of it was left; the ruins of it, the residue, were left. They were so pervasive that you could still shoot them and create the L.A. that had been lost.”

Wasson describes Towne discovering a photo essay titled “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.” in the time following the Tate-LaBianca murders and being drawn to it, due in part to the photos evoking the Los Angeles of Towne’s childhood.

In turbulent times — and the heyday of the Manson Family certainly qualifies as that — there can be a calmness that comes from revisiting the past. Wasson’s account of Towne’s life during this period helps to explain how a singular film came about — and still echoes with resonance today.

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