Roman Polanski ought to be living it large, attending film festivals and awards ceremonies, accepting lifetime achievement gongs and lapping up his status as one of the world's great directors. Instead, he's hiding out in Switzerland, and whenever he dares stick his head above the parapet, vengeful paparazzi swoop.
In 1977, while awaiting trial in Los Angeles for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl called Samantha Gailey, Polanski suddenly fled the jurisdiction. Polanski had pleaded guilty to the charges, but thanks to a plea bargain was guaranteed not to serve any prison time. The trial judge demurred, and apparently planned to teach the film-maker a lesson by giving him 50 years in jail. Polanski got wind of this, and bolted. Gailey, a model, had been fed Champagne and drugs during the incident, and would later sue Polanski for personal damages. He is still considered a fugitive from justice in America, and repeated attempts have been made to extradite him.
Such behaviour is extremely hard to forgive, and Polanski's subsequent attitude did not help matters. In 1979, during an ill-advised interview with the writer Martin Amis, he depicted the whole thing as a media circus and said "if I had killed somebody it wouldn't have had such appeal to the press, you see… but everyone wants to f*** young girls".
Charming stuff, but nevertheless Roman Polanski's early experiences would incline one towards sympathy. Born in Paris in 1937 to Polish-Jewish parents, Roman moved back to Poland with his family and became trapped in the Krakow ghetto. His mother died in Auschwitz, his father was sent to Mauthausen and Roman survived the war by posing as a Catholic and fleeing across country, where passing German troops used him for target practice.
He made his reputation with two explosive early films, Knife in the Water and Repulsion, which demonstrated a fascination with violence and psycho-sexual confusion. Polanski fell in love with the American actress Sharon Tate while making The Fearless Vampire Killers, and moved with her to Los Angeles. She was pregnant with their child when the Manson family invaded their home on Cielo Drive in the summer of 1969, murdering her and four friends. Polanski, who was working in London, received this news by phone.
Somehow, he carried on, and less than five years after this awful event would make arguably his finest film. Chinatown (1974) is the subject of a new book by Sam Wasson called The Big Goodbye. A bit like the film itself, Wasson's book is nostalgic for a vanished Los Angeles, in this case, Hollywood in the early 1970s, a magical time where brave producers backed young writers and directors to make new and original films. The Big Goodbye is sometimes over-written - "Sharon Tate looked like California" - but it's also well researched and tells a story that will grip any movie-lover.
Chinatown has regularly appeared on lists of great films, and while Polanski has tended to get most of the credit, it was as much Robert Towne's movie as anyone's. A friend of Jack Nicholson's, whom he'd first met in the early 60s at a Roger Corman acting class, Towne grew up in the Los Angeles port district of San Pedro. By the late 1960s, the city of Towne's birth was unrecognisable, having been sliced up and destroyed by freeways. Towne had turned from acting to writing, and made a name for himself as a brilliant script doctor, his work on a key Marlon Brando speech in The Godfather being a perfect case in point.
By the early 1970s he was writing original screenplays of his own, and in 1971 he was approached by Paramount's dynamic new production boss Robert Evans, a dashing 41-year-old who was ready and willing to back young talent. Evans asked Towne to adapt F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, offering a $175,000 fee as incentive. But Towne, a purist, loved the novel and felt that any screen adaptation would demean it. Instead he asked Evans to pay him $25,000 to write his own original screenplay instead about corruption in 1930s Los Angeles. Intrigued, Evans agreed.
In writing Chinatown, Towne was inspired by the gloomy elegies for the rapidly expanding city in Raymond Chandler's classic Marlowe detective novels. Because of its coast, beaches, palm trees and pristine Pacific light, there was something very different about Los Angeles, something special in constant danger of being lost. Towne felt it had been, and built his story about the real-life scandals surrounding the struggle to bring fresh water to a city built on a coastal desert. The building of the aqueduct from Owens Valley to LA in the 1920s was mired in corruption and led to tragedy when a new dam burst and killed 600 people.
Chinatown would be a neo noir, an ode to the classic noirs of the 1940s that would also incorporate the vulgarity and venality that had overtaken the city since. Polanski knew all about that, and Evans persuaded him to return to LA to direct the film because he felt the Pole would bring a uniquely jaundiced outsider's view. Polanski, in any case, had wanted to work with Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne had written the character of private detective JJ Gittes with Jack in mind.
Gittes would be less heroic than the likes of Marlowe, and spends most of his time photographing married people up to no good until he gets mixed up with a family called the Crosses. Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is looking for her husband, and before Gittes can find him, Hollis Mulwray is fished lifeless from a Los Angeles reservoir. While investigating his death, Gittes discovers that although LA is experiencing a severe drought, huge amounts of water are being released from the reservoir every night. There's a scandal afoot, involving Evelyn's wealthy and grandiose father, Noah Cross (John Huston).
That last bit of casting was inspired, for more reasons than one. The great director John Huston was a handy actor, and his very presence summoned memories of great noirs like The Maltese Falcon. To add further spice, Jack Nicholson had just begun dating Huston's daughter, Anjelica: at one point, Noah Cross asks the detective, "Mr Gittes, do you sleep with my daughter?". That scene must have amused Nicholson and Huston immensely.
It was not, however, a relaxed shoot. For Polanski, the devil was in the detail, and on the first day of the shoot, he spent hours trying to photograph an ant crawling across Nicholson's face. His methods were exacting, Polanski was not a people person, and as shooting dragged on, tempers began to fray.
Faye Dunaway had a reputation as a bit of a diva, and after Chinatown was finished, Polanski, clearly not a man for looking in the mirror, would describe her as a "gigantic pain in the ass". Maybe Dunaway just wasn't prepared to be bullied, and she fought bitterly with her director. At one point, when she asked (not unreasonably) what her motivation was for a particular scene, Polanski apparently replied, "just say the f***ing words, your salary is your motivation!".
He and Nicholson also fought, and after a particularly heated argument, Polanski smashed the portable TV set Jack used to watch his beloved LA Lakers basketball team in his trailer.
A lot of fuss - was the finished film worth it? It certainly was, in fact Chinatown stands up to the great noirs like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, with its bitter-sweet portrayal of a city that used to be heaven, but was now for many a kind of purgatory. Towne's story was suffused with melancholy for this paradise lost, and Polanski's direction had more than done it justice.
After Chinatown, Jack Nicholson would become a major star, and Roman would be in big demand. But Los Angeles was a treacherous place, and if Polanski had ever forgotten that fact, he was about to be reminded.