straight down the line

Former Ventura County Sheriff Claude Mulvihill

I read Robert Towne’s script and watched Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir Chinatown (1974) this week for noir106. This class is becoming an excuse for all kinds of fun things. We’re focusing on writing out of the gate this time around, and Paul Bond added the script of Chinatown as one example. I’ve seen the film several times, but never read the script. Doing the two in concert, I was struck by how few changes to the script (including the stage direction and shots) where made.


Rather than going through all the differences, I wanted to focus on one relatively small, but interesting one. In the scene where Gittes first goes to the L.A. Department of Water & Power to find Mulwray, he runs into an old acquaintance: hired thug Claude Mulvihill. In the script (page 24-25), Gittes talks some smack on Mulvihill:

He goes out the door, nearly running into a man who is standing by the Secretary’s desk – about GITTES’ age only a head taller and a foot wider, dressed in a plain suit that fits him about as well as a brown paper bag.

Mulvihlll, what are you doing here?

MULVIHILL stares at Gittes with unblinking eyes, remains by
the desk.
They shut my water off, what’s it to you?

How’d you find out? You don’t drink it, you don’t take a bath in it, maybe they sent you a letter. Ah, but then you’d have to be able to read.

The two face off, but that’s the end of it in the script. In the scene from the film, however, there’s a bit more. Yelburton explains to Gittes that Mulvihill was hired to guard against the desperate farmers in the valley who have become dangerous given the drought. Setting up what’s to come. In response, Gittes provides a little backstory about Mulvihill that I found interesting. While Ventura Country Sheriff during prohibition, he let rumrunners run tons of alcohol into the country. He was a corrupt cop, and in many ways hearkens back to the gangster era of prohibition that informs some of the earlier noir of Dashiell Hammett, in particular his 1929 novel Red Harvest. You can see the entire scene below.

I liked this bit because it provided some backstory to an otherwise laconic and purely violent character. Admittedly, it only serves to reinforce his brutality, but I liked the way it situated these two characters’ histories within a long line of corruption and greed. There is a whole story there between the two that makes the tension between them that much more compelling. It also highlights two of the major themes of the film: 1) power and money outstrip any broader sense of law and order, 2) in this film everything revolves around water, even this small detail about Mulvihill.

Fun fact: Looking at Towne’s Wikipedia page, I learned he met with writer John Fante to talk about 1930s LA while researching Chinatown.Which is interesting because Paul and I included Fante’s Ask the Dust (which Towne made into a film in 2006) on our Hardboiled fiction syllabus back in 2012—knowing it was a stretch. At the same time, it’s a book I come back to again and again when I read novella’s like The Postman Always Rings Twice or watch Chinatown. Now I know why :)

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