Brow Beat

The David Fincher–Robert Towne Chinatown Prequel Series Is Actually a Great Idea

John Huston, as Noah Cross in Chinatown, wearing a shirt and suspenders and smiling amiably. Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, wearing cheaper clothes and a giant bandage on his nose, glaring at Cross.
Working title: The Young Noah Cross Chronicles.
Paramount

As Hollywood transforms itself into a remake, reboot, sequel, prequel, and Cinematic Universe factory, it seems like no piece of recognizable intellectual property will remain unexploited, as if a powerful cabal of unelected, unaccountable film and television producers had tricked us into selling them the copyrights to our entire culture, then proceeded to drain it as dry as the Owens Valley. What I’m saying is, they’ve finally come for Chinatown. The legendary 1974 film from director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne may be getting a prequel series at Netflix, according to Deadline. Towne is teaming up with director David Fincher to write a pilot script for a series about the early days of Jake Gittes, the Los Angeles PI played by Jack Nicholson in the original film (and its 1990 sequel The Two Jakes). The plan is for Fincher to direct the pilot, although at present only the screenwriting deals have closed. As someone who is always whining about Hollywood’s eagerness to cash in on easy nostalgia instead of taking risks on something new, I’m ready to call it: This is a great idea.

To be clear, it’s not a great idea to write new chapters in the Chinatown saga, nor is it a great idea to flesh out Jake Gittes’ backstory. In fact, it’s virtually blasphemy. Here is just about everything Gittes says about his past over the course of the entire movie, which is set in 1937. (As long as you’re rewatching this, savor the way the longer takes of the era let performances breathe—the last shot here, 80 seconds long, is the kind of unshowy one-shot that has all but vanished.)

In Chinatown, the past is a nightmare that every character is trying to forget, which means that making an entire television series about Gittes’ backstory seems, at the very least, impolite: He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. To the wealth of information he offers Faye Dunaway’s character in the scene above, Gittes later volunteers that he sometimes wore a uniform and is haunted by an incident in which he inadvertently caused a woman to be hurt while trying to protect her. We also meet his former partner, who is thrilled to have made lieutenant and been reassigned out of Chinatown. That is it, that is all we know, and frankly, knowing more would break the movie: Towne uses Chinatown as a symbol for situations in which, as Huston’s Noah Cross memorably tells Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” Like many noirs, if Chinatown has a moral, it’s “let sleeping dogs lie.”

So why is the possibility of a Chinatown prequel series waking up all those dogs so exciting? Because the film’s other great subject—Los Angeles, rising out of the desert through sheer willpower, plus theft and graft and murder—had already mostly happened by 1937. The city’s scheme to steal the Owens Valley’s water, the central driver of Chinatown’s plot, was complete by 1913. Moving it decades later let Towne and Polanski put Chinatown into direct conversation with the films noir their movie was modeled after—it’s no mistake that the heavy is played by John Huston, whose 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a foundational text—and let the production team go all-in on the film’s slick art deco look. But although it’s easy enough to move a single event around in time for a feature film, it can cause a butterfly effect in serial storytelling. TV is better at systems than incidents to begin with, and if the topic is systemic civic corruption (and Baltimore and Deadwood are already taken), it’s hard to imagine a better backdrop than Los Angeles in the 1920s, when an oil rush, a film rush, and what can only be described as a graft rush more than doubled the population and turned it into one of the great American cities.

It was also a time when the mayor was an underworld puppet, the DA was for sale (his name was Asa “Ace” Keyes, which seems like it should have been a clue), and the police department was so staggeringly corrupt that it had 10 police chiefs over the course of a single decade, as one after another quit or was fired after realizing that the city government was not interested in tackling gambling, bootlegging, or, indeed, crime in general—at least not when the criminals had ties to City Hall. Speaking of City Hall, its construction was just one of the ambitious, graft-ready public works projects the city embarked on in that era; others include Central Library, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the Hall of Justice. The details are in Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place, but the basic structure of the city government worked like this: Mayor George E. Cryer, elected in 1921 on an anti-crime platform, let his campaign manager Kent Parrot serve as de facto mayor. Parrot in turn took his orders from “Good Time” Charlie Crawford, a casino and brothel owner who’d been run out of Seattle before setting up shop in Southern California. Money flowed from Crawford’s operations into city coffers, and in return, he was allowed to operate openly at the height of Prohibition. (Parrot’s habit of transferring troublesome police personnel without consulting the mayor or the police department was a contributing factor in the high police chief turnover.) Meanwhile, Crawford kept business leaders and city fathers like Harry Chandler from raising a fuss, at least at first, by using the LAPD to viciously crush unions on their behalf. Called “the System” or “the Combination,” this wide-ranging allegiance between organized crime and the city of Los Angeles lasted from 1921 to 1929. (Crawford didn’t survive long out of power; a district attorney murdered him in 1931.) The scheme was a little convoluted for a feature film, even a noir—too many powers behind too many thrones—but a television show set during this period would never run out of material.

But the biggest advantage Los Angeles in the 1920s has over Los Angeles in 1937 as the prospective setting for a show or movie called Chinatown is pretty simple, and also pretty dumb: In the 1920s, Los Angeles had a Chinatown, and in 1937, it didn’t. Although Chinatown’s characters repeatedly refer to a neighborhood called “Chinatown,” and indeed, the film’s grim climax eventually plays out there, Chinatown’s Chinatown is an anachronism. The city’s original Chinatown—which Angelenos at the time the movie is set would probably have called “Old Chinatown”—was demolished in 1933. In 1938, the city abruptly went from no Chinatowns to two Chinatowns, as “China City” and “New Chinatown” opened their doors, but in 1937 there was no such place. China City burned down in less than a year; “New Chinatown,” the last Chinatown standing, eventually dropped the “New.” Old Chinatown, where a young Jake Gittes would have been assigned, was a locus of white fear, just as it’s depicted in the movie, but it wasn’t the kind of place where police were ordered to do “as little as possible.”

On the contrary, in the tradition of minority neighborhoods all over America, it seems to have been policed very harshly. The head of the LAPD vice squad nicknamed the department’s first battering ram “the key to Chinatown,” and the Los Angeles Times more or less alternated between stories about Chinatown raids on opium dens and gambling operations and stories speculating that a Tong war might break out at any moment. There may not have been a direct connection between high-profile, high-press-coverage raids in Chinatown and the fact that the city’s “anti-crime” mayor had no intention of taking on the white gangsters who’d backed him, but the arrangement was win-win for everyone except for Chinatown’s residents. By the time the city fathers decided they wanted the real estate, the white public was primed to see Chinatown as sledgehammer-ready, and after a 1926 election sealed the neighborhood’s fate, the sledgehammers came.

That election is one of the things you could build an entire season of Chinatown around, because it ties together all of the city’s deep themes—corruption, white supremacy, the never-ending fight over land, and, of course, traffic—into one rotten package. Voters were given the chance to decide whether the city should build a comprehensive system of mass transit, roughly following the recommendations of a rapid transit plan produced for the city by outside consultants in 1925, or settle for a less ambitious plan: a Union Station, to provide a single point of service for the numerous railway lines that served the city. The proposed site for the new station was Chinatown, but as the Los Angeles Times assured its readers, there was no need to worry about putting the city’s flagship railroad station in an “undesirable location.” Once construction was complete, “the Civic Center will forever do away with Chinatown and its environs.” The destruction of the neighborhood was a selling point, not an objection to overcome.

The railroads wanted the mass transit system, not too surprisingly, but the Times and other city boosters came out hard for Union Station and hard against elevated trains, which they argued would destroy the city’s beauty. The Union Station faction won, and that victory set Los Angeles on a new path, away from mass transit and toward the car-clogged city Jake Gittes cruises through in his Ford Phaeton. So there’s a ready-made Los Angeles story about a cabal of shadowy elites convincing the public to do something against its long-term interests that set the city’s course for decades to come, and it was a fight over Chinatown itself. If some version of that story doesn’t show up in Netflix’s Chinatown prequel, it’ll undoubtedly be the work of a cabal of shadowy elites.

In fact, the only downside to making a Chinatown prequel is that it’s a Chinatown prequel. The current wave of reboots and relaunches arrives with a certain responsibility to provide fan service to people who loved the source material, and that kind of in-joke is not at all compatible with the style or tone of Chinatown: seductive, but not necessarily friendly, and definitely not self-congratulatory. That tone will be the hardest thing to preserve in a 21st century television show, but Los Angeles just before the hard-boiled era is such a rich and untapped vein that if Towne and Fincher don’t waste too much time imitating Chinatown, they could build something extraordinary. If they get six seasons out of it, maybe they can make a movie.