Simanaitis Says

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THIS ALL started yesterday with my watching the Jack Nicholson/Faye Dunaway movie Chinatown and Wife Dottie’s photo of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Here in Part 2, we’ll see whether the flick is documentary or just wonderful neo-noir fiction.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct. The Los Angeles Aqueduct has two portions, the Owens Valley Aqueduct (construction commenced in 1908) and the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct (dating from 1965, supplementing and running parallel to the earlier one).

The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, as seen near Sylmar, California. Image from Los Angeles.

The Owens Valley Aqueduct was designed and built by Los Angeles’ water department under the supervision of Chief Engineer William Mulholland. It delivers water from the Owens River, in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, to Los Angeles, through 419 miles of canals, both lined and unlined, covered concrete conduits, and tunnels.

Image from the City of Los Angeles.

As noted by Wikipedia, “The construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct effectively eliminated the Owens Valley as a viable farming community and eventually devastated the Owens Lake ecosystem…. By the 1920s, the aggressive pursuits of the water rights and the diversion of the Owens River precipitated the outbreak of violence known as the California Water Wars.”

Chinatown. All this sounds like a compelling tale, and screenwriter Robert Towne assembled urban myths of the California Water Wars into the movie Chinatown, 1974, a fictional neo-noir mystery set in 1937.

Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, directed by Roman Polanski, Paramount, 1974.

J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a hard-boiled Los Angeles private detective who gets deceived by a fake Evelyn Mulwray and involved with the real one (Faye Dunaway). Hollis Mulwray, her husband, gets killed off early, but why and by whom?

Evelyn’s father is the ultra-rich and ultra-controlling Noah Cross (John Huston). Cross’s scheme of scamming San Fernando Valley farmers out of their property echoes the Owens Valley situation 30 years before.

By the time Chinatown ends, there has been deceit, scandal, bribery, disfigurement, murder, and incest. However, it’s too good a movie to give any more away here.

Suffice to say, Chinatown is a work of fiction, not in any sense a documentary. Think of it as only inspired by events of the California Water Wars. And admire Faye’s cheekbones, not for the first time.

A concluding tidbit: Director Roman Polanski had a cameo role as the Man with Knife. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. Bruce Troxell
    May 9, 2019

    Speaking of the Man with Knife, I always remember Jack Nicholson with his nose bandaged in scenes following his encounter with the man with knife. Thanks clarifying the fact/fiction of a great movie.

  2. simanaitissays
    May 9, 2019

    Thank you, Bruce. Wikipedia shared that Polanski tidbit.

  3. Michael Rubin
    May 9, 2019

    Thanks Dennis for reminding me of the Water Wars/Chinatown background…for a (rather) brief period in college a group of us rented the “Chinatown Mansion” in Pasadena. But despite the alleged bargain price it was too much bother. Never found anyone hiding in the basement, or evidence of a forgotten wine cellar.

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