Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski in 1974, is one of the great American films. It's also one of the great American scripts. Writer Robert Towne's story laid a strong foundation for Polanski's peculiar brand of artistic malice, but the tale behind the two's working relationship is bitter and acrimonious. Chinatown is a convoluted, clever tale of personal and political corruption which takes place in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a successful private investigator making an 'honest living' probing divorce cases and the like. But when he gets hired to find out about the infidelities of water-supply expert Hollis Mulwray, his investigations take him into the underhand world of Los Angeles politics. Mulwray opposes a plan to dam a river and bring more water to arid Los Angeles. When he is found dead, his glamorous wife Evelyn (a ravishing Faye Dunaway) hires Jake to find out the who and the why of the murder - if it even is a murder. Gittes begins by investigating local movers and shakers who support the dam. It seems that there's a plan afoot to illegally obtain land around the dam at cheap prices that will soar when the water arrives. Mulwray was an unfortunate obstacle to the plan. Gittes starts to suspect that Evelyn's powerful father, Noah Cross (John Huston in a domineering role), has something to do with his death. A parallel story about Evelyn's problematic relationship with her vicious and perverse father gradually supersedes the story about the water scam. Jake works hard to try to reveal the corruption to the police as well as save Evelyn from the cruel machinations of her father. But he ultimately fails on both counts. Towne intended the Chinatown of the title to be a metaphor rather than a concrete place, although Polanski insisted on shooting a few scenes there. Towne got the idea for the title from a cop friend who told him that it was difficult to police Chinatown 'because they run their own culture there'. The metaphor has little to do with Chinese residents of Los Angeles, who play only a small role in the film. It refers to the labyrinthine world of personal and political corruption the hero is immersed in. Jake's an experienced detective, but he's simply overwhelmed by an invisible political and social world. He just can't penetrate Noah Cross's circle of political heavy-hitters. The only other time he had this problem, he explains to Evelyn, was when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. At the end of the film, when Jake is faced with his failure, one of his sidekicks utters the closing line, 'Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown'. This is a reference to the fact that he shouldn't blame himself for matters that were always out of his control. Towne's inspiration came from a slice of largely forgotten Los Angeles history. The city is built on a desert, and irrigation has always been a problem. Therefore, as Michael Eaton details in his excellent short study, Chinatown, any irrigated land becomes valuable land. At the turn of the 20th century, a proposed aqueduct and reservoir in the San Fernando Valley led to a struggle for land between farmers and city authorities. The city was manipulated by rich Los Angeles real-estate speculators who made a land grab. 'The pockets of the speculators were lined by judicious use of insider knowledge and complete domination of the southern Californian political system,' writes Eaton. Towne took the basics of this story and put them into a movie format. He turned a 'history that clearly outraged him into a pitchable yarn ... a tale about a guy and a gal,' says Eaton. The story may be Towne's, but much of the moral darkness comes from Polanski, who reworked the script with him. Just three years earlier, Polanski had been through his own personal hell when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in Los Angeles by Charles Manson and his cult. The Godfather producer Robert Evans persuaded Polanski to return to Hollywood for Chinatown after memories of the murder had driven him away to Rome. When he returned, he sat down with Towne to work on the script. Polanski, as the director, had the last word. The rewrite sessions were confrontational and a big argument ensued over the ending. Towne wanted Evelyn to win out over her father, proving that good could triumph over evil, even in the most treacherous circumstances - a classic Hollywood ending. But Polanski, still suffering from the effects of his wife's barbaric murder, saw things from exactly the opposite perspective. Good was powerless in the face of evil, he thought. The patriarch Noah Cross should be shown to be invincible in his suit of cruelty. Polanski and Towne fought over the ending, but Polanski was in control of the shoot, and filmed his version. 'Roman's [Polanski] argument was, 'That's life. Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had',' Towne remembers. For years, Towne claimed that Polanski had ruined his story, and would nastily refer to Polanski's ending as 'the tunnel at the end of the light'. For his part, Polanski said: 'I thought it was a serious movie, not an adventure story for the kids.' The passage of time has proved Polanski right. The moral nihilism that the director brought to Towne's script has elevated it from being a great work to a classic. Years later, even Towne finally admitted that Polanski had made the right decision.