Screenwriter Robert Towne had an idea for a detective story set in 1930s Los Angeles. It had been inspired by a series of magazine articles with photos of buildings from that era that were still around. He realized then that those places could be used in a movie.
"I used to drive the city at night as a source of inspiration just to find possible locations — to jog my memory about how things were," Towne says. But it wasn't until reading Carey McWilliams' 1946 book Southern California: An Island on Land that Towne hit upon an idea for a plot.
In a chapter called "Water! Water! Water!" McWilliams describes the scheme to bring water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley, 230 miles away in southeastern California.
The shorthand version is this: In 1903, using the cover of a reclamation project, land was bought in the Owens Valley. Separately, an artificial drought was created in Los Angeles by dumping local water and scaring the citizens into backing a bond measure to build an aqueduct to bring water to the city from Owens Valley.
The aqueduct was built, but only as far as the north end of the San Fernando Valley, which was not part of Los Angeles then. Why? Because the prominent backers of the project had secretly and cheaply bought up farmland in the valley, which, with water, became incredibly valuable.
They then sold the land at enormous profits at the expense of the city and the "rape" of Owens Valley.
If the story rings a bell, you might have seen a compressed version of it in the 1974 noir classic Chinatown, which is out in a newly remastered special edition DVD that includes a fascinating new 70-minute documentary on water and Los Angeles.
"My God, what a great crime that's different from any other that's normally in a detective movie," says Towne, who takes part in the documentary. "And it's that favorite kind: pervasive. Because every time you turn on the tap, it's a crime in plain sight."
For the movie, which is ranked No. 21 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the greatest American movies, the screenwriter telescoped the action from several decades into several months. Towne got the idea for the title from talking to a vice cop who worked in Los Angeles' Chinatown.
The cop said of Chinatown, "'You really can't tell if you're helping someone commit a crime or prevent one. So facing that, it was better to do nothing — or do no harm,'" Towne recalled. "And I thought that was fascinating. ... So Chinatown came to stand for that: the futility of good intentions."
Towne won an Oscar for his screenplay, the only Academy Award out of 11 nominations for the film, which starred Jack Nicholson as detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray.
Chinatown retails for $16.99.