Water on Film: Chinatown (1974)
Theatrical Trailer for Chinatown. Courtesy of Paramount Movies
Film Analysis by Katrina Price
Chinatown was produced by Paramount Pictures and directed by Roman Polanski. This film was released on June 20, 1974 and features actors that are still well-known in the 21st century including: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Hillerman. Overall, this film portrays the expansion of Los Angeles in 1937 and the conflict that arose from bringing water to a desert region. In this essay, I will give a brief overview of the main plot and characters in this film. In addition, I will connect Chinatown to historical events and I will analyze the main theme of this movie: water and power. To conclude, I will address Roman Polanski’s main objectives in creating this film.
This film is set in the context of the California Water Wars that occurred in the 1930’s. William Mulholland is portrayed as Hollis Mulwray who was a civil engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department between 1878 and 1929. Fred Eaton, who is depicted as Noah Cross in this film, is an influential individual that assisted Mulholland in supplying Los Angeles with water. During this time, individuals such as Eaton, bought large amounts of land in Owens Valley under fake names in order to limit the attention given to Owens Valley real estate. When individuals bought land in Inyo County it was anticipated that this land would create a large source of revenue when the Long Valley dam was constructed. When the Long Valley dam was determine not to be feasible, Mulholland searched for land to build a dam in Santa Clara. Since individuals in the Santa Clara area knew of Mulholland’s intentions to build a dam, the Santa Clara River Association was formed. In 1924, Mulholland secretly constructed a dam in San Francisquito Canyon, known as the St. Francis dam. The St. Francis dam broke on March 13, 1928 and killed hundreds of people. As a result of the dam breaking, Mulholland lost his credibility as the Los Angeles water engineer. After the dam broke there was a great deal of discontent in southern California as blame was put on the City of Los Angeles and William Mulholland for this tragedy. In 1937, the Central Valley Project was developed to create additional dams on the Sacramento River. In 1945, the State Water Project assisted California’s legislature in passing the State Water Resource Act. This piece of legislation allowed the government to address water issues throughout the state. Over the last seventy years California has modified the State Water Project in order to manage water more efficiently. The way water is managed by the public and private sector is a key point in this film.
This film was inspired by a drought that occurred in southern California in 1937. In this film, Hollis Mulwray is the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who’s goal is to find a water source for the expanding city. In reality, between 1900 and 1920 Los Angeles increased in population size by 81%. As the city continued to grow, the Los Angeles aqueduct could no longer sustain the population. In this film, characters discuss the possibility of creating a dam to get water from Owens Valley, two hundred miles north of the city. Mulwray opposed the dam project but later heavily supported it, which likely led to his death. In this film, J.J Gittes, a private investigator, was hired by a woman claiming to be Hollis Mulwray’s wife to investigate accusations of infidelity by Hollis Mulwray. Later in the film, Gittes was hired by Evelyn Mulwray, Mulwray’s real wife, to determine the cause of Hollis Mulwray’s murder. A key to discovering why Mulwray was killed is to understand that Evelyn Mulway’s father, Noah Cross, was one of the first individuals to supply Los Angeles with water. Before Mulwray’s death, Cross and Mulwray had an argument about if water should be public good or if water should remain privately funded.
A major theme in this film is the association between water and power. After Mulwray’s death, Gittes discovered that Noah Cross dumped thousands of gallons of water in the river every night. Cross dumped an extensive amount of water into the river in order to use up the water from the aqueduct to maintain power over the water supply in the city. This action illustrates that greed and corruption drove the expansion of Los Angeles because a limited number of individuals maintained power over the limited water supply. In this film, Gittes confronts Cross at Cross’s home to question him about the death of Hollis Mulwray. Gittes had a pair of bifocals connected to Mulwray’s drowning that Cross denied belonged to him. Since California was experiencing a drought during this time, it was suspicious that Mulwray drowned when there was no water in the river during the day. After Gittes left Cross’s home, Cross is shown standing over the city which illustrates the control Cross had over Los Angeles. At the end of the film when Gittes turned Noah Cross in to the police, Cross was not charged with any crime because he controlled the city’s main water source. While this movie was set in the 1930’s, connections between water and power can still be seen in the 21st century.
The director, Roman Polanski, hopes the audience will understand the importance of water in southern California and throughout the country in water-scarce regions. Also, he wants the audience to understand the relationship between power and water. In addition, Polanski is able to connect corruption to power by illustrating how corruption can be a key factor in controlling a regions water supply. In this film, Noah Cross appears to corrupt all of the individuals he interacted with and all of the processes he was involved with. This illustrates there can be corruption involved in getting water to a desert as well as maintaining the water supply. Since California has been in multiple droughts throughout history it is important for the audience to understand the value of limited water resources.
Marc Wingarten. Thirsty: William Mulholland California Water and the Real Chinatown, (Vireo Book, 2015), p. vii.
 http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2013/09/forget-it-jake/, Date accessed: November 13, 2016
 Marc Wingarten, Thirsty: William Mulholland California Water and the Real Chinatown (Vireo Book, 2015), 218.
 Ibid, 219.
 Ibid, 221.
 http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2013/09/forget-it-jake/, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
Marc Wingarten, Thirsty: William Mulholland California Water and the Real Chinatown (Vireo Book, 2015), 243.
Gayle Olson-Raymer. History 383: Discussion Guides- California’s Water Policies: Who controls, distributes, and consumes this scarce resource. http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/Water.html, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
 http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/Water.html, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
 Marc Wingarten, Thirsty: William Mulholland California Water and the Real Chinatown (Vireo Book, 2015), 191.
 Ibid, 197.
Chinatown, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/?ref_=nv_sr_1, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
Olson-Raymer, Gayle. History 383: Discussion Guides- California’s Water Policies: Who controls, distributes, and consumes this scarce resource. http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/Water.html, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
Sitton, Tom and Deverell, William. Forget it, Jake. Boom Vol. 3, No. 3, http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2013/09/forget-it-jake/, Date accessed: November 13, 2016.
William Mullholland. Wikipedia, Date accessed: November 21, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Mulholland.
Wingarten, Marc. Thirsty: William Mulholland California Water and the Real Chinatown, Vireo Book, 2015.