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A vintage L.A. story

Times Staff Writer

“Forget it ... it’s Chinatown”

the last line from the 1974 film “Chinatown”

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Screenwriter Robert Towne wasn’t a welcome guest on the set of his seminal film noir, “Chinatown.” He and director Roman Polanski were at loggerheads, squabbling, among other things, about the film’s ending -- which turned out to be one of the most evocative finales in the annals of film.

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“The difference between what I wanted and what was done was not all that great,” reflects Towne, who won an Oscar for his screenplay. “I consider working with [Polanski] one of the best, no matter how volatile, working relationships in my life.”

One of the greatest movies from the 1970s, considered by most film historians and critics as the second golden age of cinema, “Chinatown” continues to inspire and influence writers, directors and producers.

On Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will pay tribute to the film noir with a cast-and-crew reunion screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Scheduled to attend are Towne, producer Robert Evans and assistant director Hawk Koch. Film historian Richard Schickel will moderate. The academy has also made a new 35-millimeter print of the film, which was nominated for 11 Oscars, from the original camera negative and optical track.

Set in Los Angeles in 1937, “Chinatown” stars Jack Nicholson in one of his cornerstone performances as J.J. Gittes, who has made a name for himself by snooping around for divorce cases. Gittes finds himself embroiled in a case that draws him into the unsavory underbelly of the City of Angels and a conspiracy dealing with the Los Angeles water supply.

Faye Dunaway played the woman of mystery Evelyn Mulwray, who asks Gittes to find her husband’s murderer, and the late John Huston plays the villainous mover-and-shaker Noah Cross.

“Chinatown” benefited from John Alonzo’s dark, muted cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s lush romantic score.

Towne wrote the film for Nicholson because the two were having trouble getting another Towne script, “The Last Detail,” made because of its rough language.

Although the two would ultimately prevail -- Hal Ashby directed “Detail” in 1973, with Nicholson receiving an Oscar nomination -- they had already begun mulling over alternatives.

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“I said, ‘What if I write a detective movie?’ ” Towne recalls. “Initially, it was with me directing it, figuring no matter how bad I was as a director, if I could tell a decent story they would watch it. [Nicholson] said, ‘Sounds great.’ ”

The movie’s literate, complex plot had many inspirations, including a West magazine article on Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles that illustrated still-existing locations from the novelist’s time.

“I thought, with a judicious selection of locations, you can really bring the city back to life,” says Towne.

The conspiracy aspect of “Chinatown” came about when Towne helped fight a losing battle with City Hall to halt a housing development in Benedict Canyon.

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Simultaneously, Towne was reading “Southern California Country.” “It probably is the best book on Southern California, and there was a chapter on the aqueduct that was built from Owens Valley to here -- that project became the basis for ‘Chinatown.’ ”

“Everything about it was an attempt to take an existing genre and imbue it with things from life,” explains Towne. “Not to do an exotic movie about Maltese falcons and jewel-encrusted birds but to take a crime that was right in front of your face, that was as basic as water and power. And a detective who was not a tarnished knight like Phillip Marlow, but kind of a sleazy, charming, dapper guy who would only take [divorce] cases because they made him the most money.”

Towne had initially hoped to direct the movie, but “at that time, I was broke basically.... I needed money to finish it.”

He struck an agreement with Evans that gave Paramount a 30-day option on it. "[Evans] exercised that option and he wanted Roman to direct.”

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Towne says he has no regrets: “The movie never would have been what it was if he hadn’t directed it. Roman is the best thing that ever happened.”

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‘Chinatown’

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

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When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Price: $5 for general public;

$3 for academy members

Contact: (310) 247-3600

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