Watch: Why 'Chinatown' is Considered One of the Greatest Screenplays of All Time

This video looks at the screenplay for 1974's 'Chinatown,' examining why it's often cited as one of the greatest scripts ever written. 

Ever since there have been books on screenwriting (the modern age can probably be said to date from Syd Field's Screenplay, first published in 1979), Robert Towne's screenplay for Chinatown has been cited as one of the greatest screenplays ever written. 

In the video below from Jack's Movie Reviews, Jack looks at the structural elements of the Chinatown script to find out why it stands out from so many others and is even today held up as an example of perfection via its screenwriting form. 

No Easy Answers

According to Jack, part of the reason the screenplay is successful is that while the narrative hits the normal beats, it also twists them enough to keep the audience guessing. As he says, "the movie is real mystery. There are no easy answers to anything; as the story unfolds, one question is answered, only for that answer to reveal two more questions." However, the answers to all of these questions are contained within the film's first act, which is also a hallmark of great drama.

The real mystery of the film isn't the answer to the mystery that Jake has ostensibly been trying to solve, but in trying to figure out what question has been being asked.

Red Herrings

Much of the film is spent incorporating red herrings, and "one of the most obvious examples…[is] the motif of the water. For the majority of the film, the primary focus appears to be Jake uncovering the water scandal."

While there are, of course, other things at play, the mystery seems to be predicated on the water; ironically, the water is important in that will take us on a journey through Chinatown and in doing so "lead us to a much greater and darker mystery. In fact, by the end of the film, the water seems rather small compared to the momentous consequences that we see in the final scene." 

“There are countless times in which we could've guessed something and made an assumption based on pre-existing cinema, but in almost all cases we would have been wrong."

Subverting Expectations

The movie also subverts many of the conventions of the film noir genre, for instance in the characterization of Evelyn Mulwray. In most film noirs, the lead female character is presented as a sort of black widow who will inevitably turn into an antagonist. In the case of Chinatown, however, she is the film's heroine. 

Towne uses what we know of the film noir genre, as well as what Jake thinks he knows, only to turn it on its head. “There are countless times in which we could've guessed something and made an assumption based on pre-existing cinema; in almost all cases, we would have been wrong.” While Evelyn is clearly involved in the scandal and "hiding something important," Jake's assumption "ends up costing him in the end" when it is revealed that Evelyn is a victim of a traumatic past. 

Throughout the film, we have seen Jake go from a loner who tries to do his job well (staying away from human connection) to someone who attempts to take a more protective role of Evelyn. By the end of the film when he is exposed to the real world and violence in the dark nature of life, "any change he thought had happened disappears…he loses on the literal level, with the antagonist succeeding and the good people losing, but he also loses on an emotional level."

Jack posits that this is a direct response to the film noirs of the 1940s and 50s, where characters might lose on one level while often learning an important lesson in the process. In Chinatown, there is no deeper lesson to be learned, other than that evil triumphs. 

One of the greatest strengths of this screenplay is that it never wastes a moment. As Jack says, "every scene, every interaction, and every line of dialogue Is going to serve multiple purposes. Almost every event helps to move the plot forward, and every interaction also serves a second purpose."

There are countless reasons why Chinatown is considered one of the greatest screenplays ever written, but this video is a great primer on what makes it such a model for screenwriters more than forty years after its release.       

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December 28, 2018 at 11:22PM, Edited December 28, 11:22PM


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January 21, 2019 at 7:28AM

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February 18, 2019 at 12:22AM


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February 25, 2019 at 7:55PM


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March 12, 2019 at 8:42AM, Edited March 12, 8:42AM


The motion picture additionally subverts a large number of the shows of the film noir classification, for example in the portrayal of Evelyn Mulwray. In most film noirs, the lead female character is introduced as a kind of dark widow who will definitely transform into a foe. On account of Chinatown, be that as it may, she is the film's courageous woman.

June 24, 2019 at 4:21AM


So I viewed Chinatown (dir. by Roman Polanski) today with my family. We as a whole concurred it was a stunning film, convincing and all around paced.
I have no uncertainty it has an incredible screenplay (particularly contrasted with the present gauges), yet I was pondering, what warrants the title "best screenplay"?
we are not saying its awful, i'm only inquisitive with respect to what made it great.

July 21, 2019 at 4:09AM


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November 19, 2019 at 2:34AM


This is a very dialogue heavy film - so you lose the bigger picture and THE PLOT !
So, I'm pleased to use the STEP-SHEET summary from - and Screentalk magazine.
This work features the 16 BEATS - but not as an HERO'S JOURNEY. It is a set of 4 THROUGHLINES.

HUMAN V HUMAN - Life In Los Angeles
HUMAN V SELF - The hero Jake Gittes
HUMAN V ENVIRONMENT - The Water Investigation
HUMAN V TIME - Emotional Events

These are the professional beats - that Robert Mckee will not tell you about -

IMPULSIONS - It is not a good idea to eat Venetian Blinds ! Curly is very worried and upset about his wife. Gittes's fee is not precious to him. Gittes is confident he can win a case for Mrs. Mulwray.

ACTION - There is a public hearing about a dam. A protest of sheep being driven into the room is an unexpected result.

QUEST - Gittes's immediate need is to watch Mr. Mulwray all day. His great need is to discover an affair. Photographs fail to prove anything.

CHANGE NASTY NOW - It is the investigator's fate to sit in a boat in the harbour. Gittes intercepts by taking photographs.

SUSPICIONS - The photographs are noticed by everyone in the newspaper. Gittes has been dealing with the wrong Mrs. Mulwray. The correct Mrs. Mulwray sues Gittes in his office.

PLANNING - Gittes plots to discover who set him up - with limited success.

WHAT IS HAPPENING - Gittes's logical quest now turns into a highly emotional murder investigation.

NEW CHANGE THREAT - The end of a tramp's secure life turns nasty as Gittes is viciously threatened by a " midget ".

INVESTIGATIONS - Gittes discovers Mrs. Mulwray was having an affair but doesn't want it public knowledge.

UNDERSTAND - Gittes thinks that the water is being dumped into the ocean. However this is denied - but Gittes thinks this is a lie.

IMMEDIATE CHOICE - Mrs. Mulwray chooses to make Gittes's employment official. Noah Cross is open - " Just find the girl ! "

HERO BELIEVES - Gittes believes that he is a - Enemy Of The Water Department. While the famers believe he is a saboteur.

COMMITTED - Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray reason they are married and looking for a home for - Dad ! They obsessively search for landowners.

DESIRES - Gittes has the true-hope to get Mrs. Mulwray into bed. But has the false-hope in finding out who the telephone call was from.

GAIN / LOSS - Escobar helps Gittes to understand that the victim had salt-water in his lungs. Gittes morally takes Escobar to the ocean.

PAST-FUTURE - Gittes returns to Mrs. Mulwray's home. She has a salt-water pool.
Curly will take Mrs. Mulwray out of the country. Noah Cross " did it " for the future.


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January 2, 2021 at 4:43AM


The screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), written by Robert Towne, is often considered to be the greatest screenplay of all time. In this video essay, Jack unpacks the story, Jack's Movie Reviews.

January 4, 2021 at 12:03AM


Produced by the great Robert Evans, Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir ... sheet, consider this: one of the most 'perfect' screenplays ever written is Chinatown.

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June 18, 2021 at 11:00PM


Yes this film is one of my favourite. Roman polanski the man behind this

June 29, 2021 at 1:09AM, Edited June 29, 1:09AM

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December 20, 2021 at 7:06AM, Edited December 20, 7:06AM

Ava Ethan

It comes from the innovative structure, going back and forth in time. It has since been ripped off forever.

The private investigator crime style of Chinatown had already been used in novels.

Also, according to several people in this thread, it is because of the classical lines of dialogue. If that was anything to measure by, Casablanca is by far the leading candidate for the first prize.

Others, like the most upvoted one, praise it for containing all the classical elements of noir. What? How is that inventive in any way? Paying homage to another genre.

And why is this downvoted again? That's right, because we in general are kids who only watch never movies myinstantoffer.

February 3, 2022 at 7:04AM

Simavo Smith

It is really good to read such a nice Moive. I have searched a couple of days and found some interesting movies like Chinatown. But it is the best of all.

June 2, 2022 at 12:21AM, Edited June 2, 12:21AM