' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Robert Towne

Monday, July 08, 2024

In Memoriam: Robert Towne

If Robert Towne had only written “Chinatown,” his legacy would have been immense. Just as “Citizen Kane” has essentially settled in cultural discourse as quote-unquote The Greatest Movie of All-Time so, too, has Towne’s script for “Chinatown” settled as quote-unquote The Greatest Screenplay Ever Written. His resume, though, was richer than one movie. He wrote other staples of 70s cinema like “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo,” and though his forays behind the camera were uneven, I have deep fondness for his labors of love “Personal Best” and “Without Limits,” both evincing Towne’s predilection for physical pursuits. It is something of a curiosity, however, that many of Towne’s mightiest achievements to the form did not officially bear his name. 

Like so many in Hollywood, Towne got his start with Roger Corman, no doubt learning in the filmmaking impresario’s dirt cheap world how to write and revise on the fly, a skill that became useful in his frequent and famous work as a script doctor. He reworked the screenplays for landmarks like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Godfather.” He was still providing his services in the 90s, the decade of so many great action-thrillers, contributing to perhaps the best of the bunch, “Crimson Tide.” And though he officially wrote “Mission: Impossible II,” in a way he still functioned as a script doctor, tasked by director John Woo with slaloming the story around preconceived, set-in-stone action scenes. Towne noticeably ripped off the plot of “Notorious,” the Alfred Hitchcock thriller written by Ben Hecht, the greatest script doctor of the Golden Age, and I always liked thinking that Towne intended it as a cheeky homage. 

In the end, though, it all comes back to “Chinatown.” Tightly plotted, impeccably structured, richly layered, and witty as hell (“I take a long lunch hour – all day sometimes”), it uses the framework of a hard-boiled noir to open up into something so much more massive and mythic. It is about a P.I. (Jack Nicholson) haunted by a past mistake and not doomed to relive it, crucially, but actively recreating it on an even grander scale, his emergent moral code and unlikely romanticism proving no match for an imposing aristocrat (John Huston) who seeks to control the water of Los Angeles to own the future. Its famed twist is shocking but not merely for shock value, evoking a quasi-royal hereditary line in the darkest way. It is a movie infused with a deep cynicism, maybe born of the preeminent political scandal of its time – namely, Watergate – or maybe born of nothing more than the eternal human condition as national events occurring during the writing of this obituary can attest. 

That ending, however, was not Towne’s but rather a product of director Roman Polanski’s rewrite, making it so the wrong people are alive at the end rather than the other way around. In essence, Polanski doctored the script of the industry’s foremost script doctor, an incredible irony that in interviews over the years Towne seemed both to have made peace with and not made peace with at all. He envisioned “Chinatown” as a Los Angeles-set trilogy, and though the sequel, “The Two Jakes,” came to pass in 1990, it had a troubled production and proved a disappointment. The third movie never happened, though in the final weeks of Towne’s life, there were industry stories of a prequel being in development at Netflix. All this, the Polanski rewrites, the ensuing projects and their struggles, seemed to echo that end of “Chinatown,” the one with the unforgettable closing line, the difficulty (impossibility) of letting go. 

Robert Towne died on July 1st, 2024. He was 89.

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