Scene Description Spotlight: “Chinatown”

August 15th, 2013 by

The screenplay for the 1974 movie Chinatown is considered one of the best scripts ever written. Its writer Robert Towne received an
Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the script ranks #3 on the WGA 101 List of top screenplays of all time.

Whether you consider the movie film noir or neo-noir, as some have called it, Chinatownhas a specific mood throughout — and that mood begins on page 1, scene 1:

FULL SCREEN PHOTOGRAPH 

Grainy but unmistakably a man and
woman making love. Photograph shakes. SOUND of a man MOANING
in anguish. The photograph is dropped, REVEALING ANOTHER, 
MORE compromising one. Then another, and another. More moans.

                    CURLY'S VOICE
              (crying out)
          Oh, no.

INT. GITTES' OFFICE

CURLY drops the photos on Gittes' desk. Curly towers over 
GITTES and sweats heavily through his workman's clothes, his
breathing progressively more labored. A drop plunks on Gittes' 
shiny desk top.

Gittes notes it. A fan whiffs overhead. Gittes glances up at
it. He looks cool and brisk in a white linen suit despite 
the heat. Never taking his eyes off Curly, he lights a 
cigarette using a lighter with a "nail" on his desk.

Curly, with another anguished sob, turns and rams his fist 
into the wall, kicking the wastebasket as he does. He starts 
to sob again, slides along the wall where his fist has left 
a noticeable dent and its impact has sent the signed photos 
of several movie stars askew.

Curly slides on into the blinds and sinks to his knees. He 
is weeping heavily now, and is in such pain that he actually 
bites into the blinds.

Gittes doesn't move from his chair.

                     GITTES
          All right, enough is enough. You 
          can't eat the Venetian blinds, Curly. 
          I just had 'em installed on Wednesday.

Curly responds slowly, rising to his feet, crying. Gittes 
reaches into his desk and pulls out a shot glass, quickly 
selects a cheaper bottle of bourbon from several fifths of 
more expensive whiskeys.

Gittes pours a large shot. He shoves the glass across his 
desk toward Curly.

                    GITTES
          Down the hatch.

Curly stares dumbly at it. Then picks it up, and drains it. 
He sinks back into the chair opposite Gittes, begins to cry 
quietly.

                    CURLY
              (drinking, relaxing a 
              little)
          She's just no good.

                    GITTES
          What can I tell you, Kid? You're 
          right. When you're right, you're 
          right, and you're right.

                    CURLY
          Ain't worth thinking about.

Gittes leaves the bottle with Curly.

How does Towne achieve the mood? Certainly the subject matter of the scene: Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator revealing
to a client Curly (Burt Young) that his wife has been having an affair. Gittes’ reserved reaction in contrast to Curly’s visceral pain and
tears. But there are moments in this scene, captured by Towne’s description, that evoke and underscore the scene’s mood:

Photograph shakes. A drop [sweat] plunks on Gittes' shiny desk top. 
Gittes notes it. A fan whiffs overhead. He looks cool and brisk in a white 
linen suit despite the heat. Never taking his eyes off Curly, he lights a 
cigarette using a lighter with a "nail" on his desk. Slides along the wall 
where his fist has left a noticeable dent and its impact has sent the signed 
photos of several movie stars askew. Gittes reaches into his desk and pulls 
out a shot glass, quickly selects a cheaper bottle of bourbon from several 
fifths of more expensive whiskeys. Gittes pours a large shot. He shoves the 
glass across his desk toward Curly. Curly stares dumbly at it. Then picks it 
up, and drains it.

The description is specific, observant, but cool, even detached, perfectly in sync with Gittes’ character. A private investigator is trained to
pick up small, but important details, and the scene description does that — everything from a drop of sweat to a whiffing fan, a dent in the
wall to photos of movie stars moved askew. But a P.I. also learns how to keep their emotions out of their business, and Towne does that, too, conveying Curly’s pain accurately and yet keeping the tenor of the scene at an arm’s length from the poor man’s trauma.

Thus right from the start of the screenplay, Chinatown sets a mood that reflects the personality of the story’s Protagonist Jake Gittes — and that personality is also reflected in the narrative voice of the scene description.

For more on Chinatown, here is a great interview with Robert Towne.

[Originally posted April 1, 2010]

3 thoughts on “Scene Description Spotlight: “Chinatown”

  1. blknwite says:

    Wonderful interview with Robert Towne, thanks for posting (reposting). Description is character in this one.

  2. I’m in the middle of reading this screenplay right now. Good stuff, Scott!

  3. […] Scene Description Spotlight: “Chinatown” (gointothestory.blcklst.com) […]

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