CHINATOWN – Jerry Goldsmith
Original Review by Craig Lysy
Producer Robert Evans of Paramount Studio was determined to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic, The Great Gatsby (1925) to the big screen. He hired trusted screenplay writer Robert Towne for $175,000 to write the script. Towne however had a different ambition and managed to convince Evans to take on his own 1930’s detective mystery thriller titled “Water and Power” for $25,000. Well, Evans liked the script saw opportunity, and so moved forward with production. He greatly enjoyed his collaboration with Roman Polanski with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and so brought him in to direct. They assembled a fine cast, which included Jack Nicholson as detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes, Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray, John Huston as Noah Cross, John Hillerman as Russ Yelburton, Perry Lopez as Lieutenant Lou Escobar, and Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray.
Retitled “Chinatown”, the film is a classic Film Noir, a dark psychological drama full of mystery, intrigue, drama and betrayal. The film’s inspiration was the California water rights war of the early 20th century where powerful city interests in the growing desert metropolis sought to co-opt water rights for the Owens Valley and profiteer from land grabs in the San Fernando Valley. Against this backdrop, Evelyn Mulwray hires JJ Gates, a private detective specializing in matrimonial cases. She suspects that her powerful husband Hollis Mulwray, builder of the city’s water supply system has been unfaithful. Jake obtains damning photographs of Hollis with a young woman, yet what unfolds from the scandal is a sordid mess. He discovers that he was not hired by Mrs. Mulwray, but instead an imposter. When Hollis Mulwray is soon found murdered, Jake realizes that dark forces are at play and he sets off to investigate. His efforts plunge him into a truly dark and complicated web of deceit related to the city’s water supply, where he encounters murder, treachery, incest and powerful moneyed interests who will stop at nothing to achieve their ambitions. The film was a stunning triumph for Roman Polanski. It was not only a huge commercial success, but it also earned critical acclaim, securing 11 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Film Score, winning only one for Best Original Screenplay. Worth noting is the controversy that would soon follow. Chinatown would serve as Polanski’s last Hollywood film as he fled the country rather than face imprisonment for having sex with a minor.
Philip Lambro was hired to compose the score and provided an avant garde effort, which included period elements and chinese accents. Yet Robert Evans ultimately rejected it late in production after composer Bronislau Kaper advised Polanski to reject the score, and it later received a poor response at a test screening. Jerry Goldsmith who was coming off the success of Papillion (1973) was brought in and given just 10 days to compose and record the score. Evans tasked Goldsmith to write music with a period feel, to capture life in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Goldsmith understood that the film was at its heart a tragedy and so composed music, which spoke to its emotional core. He convinced Evans that a more modernist approach was needed arguing, “emotions are timeless.” He won the day and used a small ensemble of strings, four pianos, four harps, two percussionists and a single trumpet. His haunting score powered by a solo trumpet elegy perfectly captured the drama, mystery and suspense of one of one of the finest Film Noir films of all time. For his Main Theme, which is in fact the Love Theme, he composed a bluesy and plaintive melody carried by solo trumpet, which perfectly captures the film’s sensibilities. Goldsmith wanted to capture the arid climate of this desert city (brushed piano strings) and juxtapose it with the life quenching water (harp notes as well as glissandi) it sought.
“Love Theme From Chinatown” is one of the score’s highlights, which features a full rendering of Goldsmiths evocative Love Theme in all its beauty. It opens the film and carries the flow of the Main Title credits. Its bluesy sensibility flows over us, carried splendidly by a languid solo trumpet adorned with brushed piano strings, harps, and piano. A transfer of the melody to strings is sumptuous. The theme is an elegy, and therefore portentous. Film openings just do not get any better than this. Bravo! In “J.J. Gittis” Jake has been hired by the Mrs. Mulwray imposter and is surveying Hollis walking the land that will be used by his planned aqueduct. Goldsmith offers a mysterioso, using twinkling yet disquieting piano notes, brushed piano strings and low register piano chords to evoke the arid landscape. Against this soundscape the Love Theme struggles to assert itself, but in a discordant form, ultimately surrendering to Goldsmith’s mysterioso ambiance. “Noah Cross I” reveals Jake rowing a boat atop Lake Echo Park, and later a scene change to a hotel where photos of Hollis kissing a young woman are taken. Goldsmith offers a tension cue, abounding in unsettling discordant percussive effects.
In “Mulwray’s Office” Jake visits Hollis Mulwrays office, searching for clues. Goldsmith again sows a discordant mysterioso, providing the requisite tension. “A Late Swim” offers an effects cue with harsh and violent glissandi that support the dragging of Hollis Mulwray’s corpse from the water channel. In “The Boy On A Horse” Jake is investigating a second murder in a dry riverbed, when he meets a young boy on a horse. Goldsmiths sows tension using dark, disquieting and discordant piano, which ushers in another mysterioso replete with harsh piano strikes, and eerie string sustains. Jake senses something is not right and Goldsmith’s music reinforces this narrative. “Easy Living“ is a period piece jazz song written in 1937 by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin. Goldsmith renders the song on solo piano. It perfectly supports the lounge scene ambiance of Jake having a drink with Mrs. Mulwray without being intrusive. “The Way You Look Tonight” offers the Academy Award winning song from the film Swing Time (1936) written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Jake hums it as he waits to meet with Mr. Yelburton. On the album, we are provided the melody by solo piano.
“Noah Cross II” reprises the unsettling discordant percussive effects of the earlier Noah Cross I cue as we see Jake on Catalina Island continuing his investigation with a visit to Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross. Jake sense that something is not right and Goldsmith’s score alludes to this. In “No Trespassing” Jake is investigating all the recent land sales in the San Fernando Valley. He trespasses on private land and is ambushed and beaten by the landowner. Goldsmith provides a solo trumpet variant of the main theme to support his travels. As he trespasses an unsettling discordant and percussive soundscape arises to inform us that all is not right and danger lurks. The actual fight scene is not scored. “Some Day and The Vagabond King Waltz“ are source songs from the Broadway show The Vagabond King (1925) written by Rudolf Friml & Brian Hooker. Played by solo piano. Its supports the scene of Jake and Evelyn investigating the Mar Vista retirement home, where they discover that all the buyers are residents. “The Last Of Ida II” reveals Jake fighting for his life and barely escaping the retirement home as shots are fired. A dark low register piano bangs furiously, joined by harsh percussive strikes as Jake fights for his life. Jake is rescued by Evelyn who drives their escape vehicle. As Evelyn drives, the love theme enters atop solo trumpet and supports their journey in the countryside, alluding that there is now an attraction between the two of them.
We now come to “Jake And Evelyn”, which is in my judgment the score’s supreme moment. We see Jake and Evelyn kiss and make love. Goldsmith supports the rapturous moment with a sumptuous rendering of his love theme whose expression passes through the ensemble from solo trumpet and twinkling piano, to violins, to cello, and then to piano adorned by tremolo violins. Yet the music darkens as Jake opens up to her regarding his past troubles in Chinatown. When she asks if a woman was involved, he answers of course, but fails to elaborate. But Goldsmith informs us of the answer with dark low register piano tones, which both allude to and now portend tragedy. The cue is perfect in its construct and application. Bravo! “The Captive” supports a revelation scene and offers a masterpiece of modernist scoring technique. A mysterious phone call unsettles Evelyn who leaves to meet someone. Jake follows her to discover her hidden purpose – dark resonating piano with percussive strikes entwine with the love theme in a truly discordant and twisted union. Eerie harp glissandi are joined by assorted percussive sounds that unsettle us as Jake approaches the house Evelyn has entered. As she gets into the car she is startled by Jake. Under duress she reveals to him that the young woman is Katherine, her sister.
In “Second Thoughts” we are treated to another score highlight. The cue sparkles as Goldsmith renders the score’s brightest variant of his love theme – the only time it is articulated in major modal form. He is back home, showers and takes to bed. The music informs us that he is falling for Evelyn. “The Last Of Ida I” is a dichotomous cue. It opens with a traveling variant of the love theme as Jake travels to Ida’s home. He arrives to find the door glass broken, and the score descends into a dark and foreboding soundscape with eerie metallic effects and harsh percussive strikes as he searches the ransacked house and discovers her corpse. Escobar joins and informs him that Hollis died with saltwater in his lungs, not freshwater, and that he believes Evelyn murdered him. “The Wrong Clue II” reveals Jake traveling to Evelyn’s house to discover she is packed to leave. In the backyard he discovers that the pool is saltwater and finds Hollis’ spectacles in the water, implicating that he died here. Low register tremolo strings sow tension and metallic percussive textures heighten the suspense. As the spectacles are found the love theme rises and transforms into a harsh variant as Jake travels to Katherine’s house where he confronts her with the spectacles, accusing her of murder. After he slaps her repeatedly she confesses that her father raped her and that Katherine was her sister and daughter.
In “The Wrong Clue I” Jake meets Katherine and sends Evelyn and her to Tan’s home in Chinatown. A warm and nostalgic variant of the love theme supports the parting. Jake who has summoned Escobar remains to hopefully convince him of her innocence since she has revealed that the spectacles were bifocals and that Hollis did not wear bifocals. “It’s Not Worth It” Jake calls Cross and informs him he has the woman. When he arrives Jake confronts him with his knowledge of the murder and his spectacles. But Noah Cross’ bodyguard forces him at gunpoint to take him to his daughter. As they drive to Chinatown Goldsmith shatters us with harsh piano strikes, which erupt with a deafening brutality. They portend doom and we see in Jake’s expressions that his return to Chinatown will end in tragedy. In “Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)” Evelyn has shot Noah and in turn been killed by the police. As the story concludes in tragedy and the End Credits roll, Goldsmith closes the film as he began it with a full rendering of the love theme. The theme while sumptuous, is rendered with sadness and heartache as we bear witness to tragedy – Evelyn is dead, Jake again alone, and Katherine now in the custody of Noah.
Please allow me to thank Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson of Intrada for restoring and providing the complete score to Chinatown. Although mastered from a well-preserved mono source, the sound is warm and free of any tape hiss, tape wow or distortion. For me the quality is excellent and in no way detracted from my listening experience. Folks, this is one of the finest scores of Goldsmith’s canon. The trumpet born love theme reveals Goldsmith’s capacity to capture a film’s emotion core. Rendered in a multiplicity of forms, it underpinned the film and joined the film’s narrative in perfect unity. Goldsmith’s rejection of cliché oriental accents and his reliance on a modernist percussive soundscape was well conceived and succeeded admirably is propelling the film’s narrative flow. I include this score as one of the 100 greatest film scores ever written and highly recommend it.
I have embedded a YouTube link for the timeless Love Theme for those of you unfamiliar with the score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmOhNyitewI
Buy the Chinatown soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title) (1:59)
- Noah Cross (2:27)
- Easy Living (written by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin) (1:49)
- Jake and Evelyn (2:41)
- I Can’t Get Started (written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke) (3:35)
- The Last of Ida (2:59)
- The Captive (3:05)
- The Boy on a Horse (2:05)
- The Way You Look Tonight (written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields) (2:16)
- The Wrong Clue (2:32)
- J.J. Gittis (3:05)
- Love Theme from Chinatown (End Title) (2:03)
- Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title) (1:56)
- J.J. Gittis (3:10)
- Noah Cross I (1:32)
- Mulwray’s Office (1:29)
- A Late Swim (0:25)
- The Boy on a Horse (2:06)
- Easy Living (written by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin) (1:48)
- The Way You Look Tonight (written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields) (4:35)
- Noah Cross II (1:11)
- No Trespassing (0:55)
- Some Day/The Vagabond King Waltz (written by Rudolf Friml and Brian Hooker) (3:18)
- The Last of Ida II (0:54)
- Jake and Evelyn (2:46)
- The Captive (3:15)
- Second Thoughts (1:03)
- The Last of Ida I (2:50)
- The Wrong Clue II (2:15)
- The Wrong Clue I (1:19)
- It’s Not Worth It (1:11)
- Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title) (2:01)
Running Time: 70 minutes 35 seconds
Intrada Records ISC-350 (1974/2016)
Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton. Recorded and mixed by XXX. Edited by John Hammell. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson