Did Chinatown Originally Have a Much Different Ending?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robert Towne’s original ending for Chinatown was about the complete opposite of the ending that Roman Polanski went with.

Robert Towne was an experienced script doctor who Robert Evans was familiar with from some work Towne did on The Godfather.

Evans tried to hire Towne to write the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Towne felt he could not do the book justice, but he told Evans that he DID have a script that he thought Evans should take a look at.

That screenplay was for the 1974 film, Chinatown, which is one of the most acclaimed noir films in movie history.

Amazingly enough, though, for a film with a legendary ending, the ending that the movie ended up with is about a 180 degree turn from what Towne originally had as the film’s ending.


(It kills me to not title this piece “Did Chinatown originally have a happy ending? But spoilers must be avoided!)

The film, which starred Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston (as one of the creepiest villains in film history), was directed by Roman Polanski.

In Towne’s original screenplay, the movie ends with Dunaway’s character killing her father and she and Nicholson’s detective, Jake Gittes, kissing as the sky opens up and rain comes pouring down (the film is set in Los Angeles during a drought), metaphorically washing away the sins of the characters.

While Evans loved this upbeat, classical ending, Polanski did not.

Polanski specifically did not WANT the sins to be washed away – he wanted them directly in our collective faces when the movie ended. As Polanski said about the film in 2000…

If it all ended with happy endings, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this film today. If you…feel…there’s a lot of injustice in our world, and you want to have people leaving [the] cinema with a feeling that they should do something about it in their lives, [then] if it’s all dealt for them by the filmmakers they just forget about it over dinner, and that’s it.

So Polanski asked for the production designer to give him a street in Chinatown and in one day he wrote the script that the movie ended up using, with Dunaway’s character being shot by the cops and John Huston’s character taking custody of his granddaughter (who is also his daughter, since he impregnated his own daughter after raping her).

As Jake Gittes’ mind spins at the great injustice of it all, his friend tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s a beautifully sad ending, but Towne felt it was far too depressing. He described Polanski’s ending with a great turn of phrase – “It was like the tunnel at the end of the light.”


However, in the end, I think Polanski’s probably correct – the ending of the film probably does make it stand out more as a film than anything else – although it would still be well regarded if it DID have a happy ending.

The legend is…


Thanks to Mark Cousins for the great Polanski quote.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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One Response to “Did Chinatown Originally Have a Much Different Ending?”

  1. Then again, maybe Polanski had another reason for not wanting the movie to end with a child rapist getting shot.

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