Sunday 7 June 2020

The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson

Chinatown is one of my favourite films of all time, so when I discovered that someone had written an entire book about the making of it, I immediately rushed out and bought it.

Okay, so that's not true... I immediately rushed to ask my sister to buy it for me, for my birthday.

The book is called The Big Goodbye, a title that invokes the novels of Raymond Chandler, as well as summarising one of the major themes of this impressive study...

To wit, that the era when Chinatown was made — the 1970s — was a high point in the history of Hollywood film making, and a quality of work was achieved then that has never been rivalled since.

Indeed, as Chinatown hit the screens of the world and began its long fade into history, we already began to bid farewell to an age of greatness.

Sam Wasson was familiar to me through the splendid TV series Fosse/Verdon, which was based on his biography of Bob Fosse. 

I'll have to get hold of that, as well as his book about Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Wasson has done a thorough and admirable job of research. 

Whenever he couldn't go to primary sources — either because they're beyond his reach, or dead (beyond anybody's reach) — he's dug deep into previously published interview material, but never settled for the obvious.

And he's ferreted out facts that have added immensely to my appreciation of the film.

For instance, in an account of the troubled journey to create the music for the film, Wasson reveals that Susanna Moore, then girlfriend of Richard Sylbert, the movie's production designer, made a crucial pivotal contribution.

She suggested including the lovely, lilting 1937 song 'I Can't Get Started' by Bunny Berigan. This worked beautifully to evoke the period of the film. 

But more than that, because Berigan was a star trumpeter, it led to a lone trumpet being the signature sound of Chinatown.

To my delight Wasson even devotes a section of the book to Uan Rasey, the virtuoso session trumpeter who plays so unforgettably on the soundtrack.

And of course he also discusses Jerry Goldsmith, whose stellar music is no small part of Chinatown's greatness.

Naturally Sam Wasson also understands the importance of writers, so a major portion of The Big Goodbye is spent on Robert Towne, who wrote the film.

Robert Towne is one of the great screenwriters and I admire him considerably.

However, instead of his single credit on Chinatown, there should be three names on the movie.

Ever since the film appeared, it's been an open secret that Roman Polanski, the director, made a significant contribution to the script. Notably its indelible conclusion.

Here is a website discussing "The memorable ending of the classic 1974 movie Chinatown, written by Robert Towne."

In fact Towne didn't write a word of this sequence. He refused to have anything to do with what Pauline Kael would call Polanski's "gargoyle's grin" of an ending.

More than that, Roman Polanski was responsible for taking Towne's brilliant but vastly overlength and unfocused screenplay and hewing it down so that it unwaveringly followed private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and his story.

But the big surprise in The Big Goodbye is that through all the preliminary years of developing what became Chinatown, Robert Towne had a writing shadow partner, a friend named Edward Taylor.

Taylor who did extensive, unacknowledged work on not only Chinatown, but virtually every screenplay Towne wrote.

None of which diminishes Towne's importance here. But it puts it in perspective, confirms Polanski's contribution and, crucially, finally brings Edward Taylor out of the shadows.

If you haven't seen Chinatown, I'd suggest you do so immediately.

And if you love it as much as I do, you should then buy this book.

Or get someone else to buy it for your birthday.

(Image credits: The cover is from Amazon UK — fair enough, since that is where we bought the book. The other images are all taken from IMDB, where they also have a fine selection of posters I may well draw on when I write about the film itself.)

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