Saturday, March 14, 2009
CHINATOWN - Act Two, part one breakdown
It's a rainy day, so I have water on the brain. Which means today you get more CHINATOWN.
First, you will probably want to reread Elements of Act Two, Part 1.
And here's the Act One Breakdown, if you need to catch up.
[34:16] At the police station, Evelyn identifies her husband's body. Lt. Escobar seems to be thinking suicide or accidental death, not murder. When Escobar grills Evelyn, Jake steps in and helps her lie about how she hired him.
Jake escorts Evelyn out. She says she’ll send a check and he’s insulted – but she says it’s to prove that she did hire him. He wants to talk to her further but she refuses. Angered, he says her husband was murdered, and drives off before he sees that she does want to talk to him. (We see more than Jake does at that moment – it’s an interesting POV shift in that scene. It makes us sympathize with Evelyn and works well to give us a feeling of urgency that Jake find out what’s going on.)
Note that Jake’s PLAN has changed: from finding who set him up to finding who murdered Mulwray – although of course this is most likely the same person. So by implication, Jake is finding out more about his ANTAGONIST – this is a person capable of murder. STAKES are life and death.
And now Jake proceeds to do what detectives do in murder mysteries: He INTERVIEWS WITNESSES AND SUSPECTS, and FOLLOWS CLUES.
Since he has failed at getting Evelyn to help him solve the murder, Jake goes down to the morgue to speak to the coroner, whom he obviously knows well (nice cameo with the guy cheerfully coughing his lungs out). BIG CLUE: Mulwray didn’t die in the reservoir – he had salt water in his lungs. So he died in the ocean and was moved to the reservoir. Jake learns of another drowning: a drunk who died in the LA River. Gittes asks how he could have drowned – in the drought, the river is dry as a bone. (CLUE)
 Jake follows the clue and goes to the bridge where the drunk drowned. It is dry, rocky, deserted – but yes, there is some water in the riverbed. (Love the sign: “This office space could be yours!”) Jake sees the same Mexican boy in white on a horse and asks him what he talked to Mulwray about; the boy says Mulwray wanted to know where the water comes, and he told him it comes in different places every night. Again, this is uneasy imagery, linking Jake even more strongly to the dead Mulwray.
(Maybe I’m totally reading into it, but there’s something that evokes Don Quixote with this boy on the drooping horse… an image that suggests futility, tilting at windmills.)
 That night, Gittes goes back to the reservoir where Mulwray died and hops the fence (a sign clearly states: NO TRESPASSING - foreshadowing). As Jake investigates the pipe where Mulwray was found, someone shoots at him and suddenly water rushes over him. He gets caught in the current and this time almost dies – we think this is exactly how Mulwray must have died (but that’s not actually true). (ATTACK ON HERO). Jake limps away; he’s lost one shoe – just like Mulwray’s corpse (ominous, possible foreshadowing. The jeopardy has really escalated, and is about to get worse.).
Jake is accosted at the fence by his old nemesis, Mulvahill, now with a clearly psychopathic goon (a wonderful cameo by director Polanski) and warned off. The goon cuts his nose and warns him that next time he’ll lose the whole thing. (Play on being nosy. Also slicing off someone’s nose is supposedly a castration metaphor. Don’t ask me why, it’s just accepted symbolism. Maybe one of you guys can explain it for us.)
This is the SEQUENCE THREE CLIMAX – and it’s a great one – Jake almost dies, he almost gets his nose cut off (another ATTACK ON HERO). The stakes have really escalated.
I would call this next sequence the LINING UP THE SUSPECTS sequence, which is a typical one for a murder mystery: the detective goes around to one suspect after another so we can look at the players. Remember when I said that every genre has its games that it plays with the reader/audience? Well, this is a game that mystery fans love about this genre – a chance for them to solve the case along with the detective and place their bets about whodunit, so it’s important to deliver that if you’re writing in this genre. You don’t have to put all the suspects in one sequence, of course, but it’s an easy and logical way of organizing your story. And obviously, the SUSPECTS sequence will most likely want to come in the first half of the story.
Approx. 43:05: Back at the office, Jake (with bandaged nose) receives a call from Ida Sessions, the fake Mrs. Mulwray (and a potential suspect, right?).
Note that when Jake gets serious on the phone, it’s Walsh who instantly shuts up and comes to the desk to listen to the phone call, while Duffy remains lazing in his chair. I think that Walsh and Duffy represent the two sides of Jake – the serious, smart, almost geeky Walsh, who’s both deliberate and intuitive; and the flashy, crass charmer, Duffy. Having minor characters reflect qualities of the protagonist is a great way to develop and illuminate the character of your protagonist.
Ida tells Jake she was hired, and wants someone to know that she had no idea it would lead to Mulwray’s death. When Jake presses her to say who hired her, she refuses, then tells him to look at the obituary column if he wants to find “one of them”. Jake looks at the column but it’s meaningless to him; but we get a glimpse of the name Jasper Lamar Crabbe (CLUE) which is unique enough that Jake, and hopefully we, will remember it later. Ida’s afraid of whoever hired her, which creates unease.
(Note that there’s no real reason that Ida Sessions would know anything about the Albacore Club, but this is what Hitchcock called a “ham sandwich” – a plot hole that you only think about after the movie, when you’re in your robe and standing in your kitchen about to bite into a ham sandwich…)
Jake meets Evelyn for lunch at the Brown Derby (continually great use of iconic Los Angeles locations!). He has both the obituary page and the envelope she mailed the check in). Note the lush reds in this scene, the booths, the carnation on the table – very startlingly sexual compared to the sepia tones of the rest of the movie. Also note the background music: “The Way You Look Tonight” – which Jake will hum in the next scene, a subconscious indication that he is thinking of Evelyn. Evelyn is dressed in all black with a veil – the Black Widow – because of course, she’s a prime SUSPECT. In fact, you could say she’s the major suspect, because her husband was apparently having an affair, and besides, this is film noir, and the women are always up to no good. Gittes confronts Evelyn on what she knows, and we learn that her maiden name is Cross. She stammers the C, a CLUE. At the end of the meal, Gittes tells Evelyn that her husband was murdered because of his knowledge that the city water was being stolen.
Jake returns to Mulwray's office to meet with his colleague, Yelburton (another SUSPECT). The secretary/guardian at the gate does not let him in, and thus begins a great character scene as Jake plants himself in the office and proceeds to make himself so annoying that the secretary will cave and admit him. He whistles the song from the restaurant, wanders around the office – and in so doing notices fishing photos of Noah Cross, Evelyn's father (Remember, fish=bad. Also note Biblical name, associated with water!), and photos of Mulwray and Cross together. Jake realizes (and so should we) that Cross is the man Walsh photographed Mulwray fighting with at the Pig and Whistle. From the secretary, Jake learns that Mulwray and Cross owned the entire water supply of the city, and that they disagreed on the public access to it. Mulwray thought the public should own the water (Mulwray was a good man).
The secretary does finally give up and admit Jake. In Yelburton’s office, Gittes accuses Yelburton of hiring the phony Mrs. Mulwray to ruin Mulwray’s reputation because he opposed the dam. Yelburton denies it, then Jake confronts Yelburton on what he knows about the water diversion and threatens to go to the newspapers, who will be very interested to hear that the Water Department is dumping tons of water during a drought. Yelburton tells him the water is being secretly diverted to help the orange growers in the valley – and “there’s always a little runoff.” Jake doesn’t buy it. He says he doesn’t want to nail Yelburton, who is a family man. He wants to get the big guys who put him up to it, and leaves Yelburton his card, advising him to call him.
57 mins: Jake returns to his office and Evelyn is there; she wants to hire him officially to investigate the murder of her husband. Jake asks her about her father again and she stammers on the C. She says Mulwray and her father had a falling out, and overreacts when Jake asks if the falling out was about her. She says it was over the Water Department and repeats what the secretary said about Mulwray believing the public should own the water, which is a clue that Evelyn is telling the truth, and again, that Mulwray was an honorable man (while Cross disagreed with his democratic intentions – also a CLUE). The scene closes as she signs the contract. Signing a contract, of course, is always reminiscent of a deal with the devil (or maybe that’s just me).
1 hour in: CUT TO: Catalina Island
I just love it that Noah Cross seems to live on his own island. Also, that opening shot is of the Avalon Ballroom, a round white building that in this shot looks vaguely Greek, like a temple or palace.
There is a yacht club, and we see the fish flag – the symbol of the Albacore Club (CLUE – also reiterating fish=bad). Jake is driven up to meet Noah Cross at his ranch. (I like the mariachis here – more old Los Angeles history – going back to the very roots of the place.).
Cross (another SUSPECT) wants to know why his daughter hired Gittes, and offers to double his fee if Gittes will find the "girl" (or other woman); he says Evelyn is a disturbed woman and he’s afraid of what Evelyn will do to the girl. Gittes agrees to take on that investigation. During this scene, we learn that Jake and Escobar had been partners on the Chinatown beat. Cross expresses concern that Jake is taking his daughter for a ride – an inappropriately sexual joke (CLUE). He also presses Jake about whether he’s sleeping with Evelyn (too sexual interest in his daughter - CLUE). More fish here - they eat fish for lunch – and Cross has it served with the head, one eye staring blindly up from the plate.
Cross is very convincing when he says that he and Mulwray were closer than Evelyn ever knew - probably because there’s a lot of truth in that. Jake is not fooled by Cross – he casually grills Cross about when he last saw Mulwray, and Cross lies that he doesn’t remember.
Polanski uses another slight POV shift here: we, the audience, are close up on Cross’s face when Jake “reminds” Cross that he fought with Mulwray in front of the bar several days ago. We see Cross’s face change – Jake doesn’t. This is a great technique for inducing anxiety in the audience – we want to tell Jake what we’re seeing and we can’t.
When Jake asks him what they were fighting about - Cross says, "My daughter", which we will come to realize means something quite different than we think it does.
Cross also warns Jake: “You may think that you know what you’re dealing with, but you don’t.” Jake says ruefully that that’s what the D.A. used to tell him in Chinatown – THEME and FORESHADOWING. And Cross asks him, “Was he right?” Jake doesn’t answer.
This confrontation is the MIDPOINT, and note that it has that big location feeling, a twist - that Evelyn’s father wants to hire Jake to find the girl - and the unnerving implication that Evelyn is dangerous (well, someone sure is…). STAKES are raised again.
Jake ends the scene by saying that he’s going to go visit some orange groves. (This is a useful technique for clarity– have the detective tell the audience or reader what he’s going to do next to make it easier for the audience to follow along. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to tell Cross anything about what he’s doing, so that’s more unease.).
Jake ends the scene by saying that he’s going to go visit some orange groves. (This is a useful technique for clarity– have the detective tell the audience what he’s going to do next to make it easier for the audience to follow along. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to tell Cross anything about what he’s doing, so that’s a hint of unease.).
Another complete location change. Jake goes to the Hall of Records to look up the most recent sales transactions in the Valley. This scene could easily have been the dullest in the film; instead it’s one of the most often referenced, because of the wonderful Guardian at the Gate character of the young clerk, who is snippily outraged at Jake’s every request. Just that little bit of conflict makes the scene come alive, and the bit of business with Jake stealing the page he wants from the book by using the clerk’s own ruler to tear the page (covering the sound with a cough), makes us laugh. Jake WINS in this scene, and it gives us the illusion that he’s going to win in the end.
The scene also yields a major CLUE: Most of the land in the Valley has been sold in the last few weeks.
1:07 Jake is driving through the Valley; we see "Sold' signs and “No Tresspassing” again as he drives into an orange grove. Out of nowhere Jake is shot at, then chased by two farm hands – big action scene, with flying geese and a car crash (water spews from the radiator). The hands drag Jake out of the car and beat him. One of Jake’s sunglasses lenses is broken (more Oedipus) and one of the farmhands is on a crutch (even more Oedipus – recalling Tiresius on his crutch). The grove owner calls off his sons (or hands), and wants to know if Jake is with the Water Department or the real estate office. Jake says he’s there to find out if the Water Department has been irrigating the grove owner’s crops and the outraged grove owner says it’s the opposite – thugs have been blowing up his water supply and poisoning his wells.
This MIDPOINT has a lot of classic elements – it’s an action scene, both with the car chase and the fighting; Jake is almost killed, there’s a big location feel to it (we haven’t seen the orange groves before), and there’s a big REVELATION: the Water Department has been sabotaging the farmers’ wells. (Which is the precise opposite of what Yelburton has said – that the farmers have been sabotaging the dams).
Jake gets into another scuffle with the farmhands and is knocked unconscious. The screen goes black along with his vision, a visual curtain on the MIDPOINT CLIMAX.
Previous articles on story structure: (all also linked at right hand side of blog under WRITING ARTICLES).
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
What's Your Premise?
What is High Concept?
Why the Three Act Structure?
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2
Creating Suspense, Part 2
Fairy Tale Structure and the List
What Makes a Great Villain?
Villains: The Forces of Antagonism