Robert Towne

Robert TowneThe great screenwriter Robert Towne is 80 years old today. I know, I know: another screenwriter?! But I quite like Towne. Most especially, I like him for Chinatown, which is a great screenplay and a great movie. In Hollywood, he is probably best known as a “script doctor.” He is legend for all the films he has helped fix. I can’t really comment on that. I tend to think that kind of stuff is anti-art. For example, he was brought in to work on Crimson Tide. But really, what major screenwriter in Hollywood was not brought in to work on that film?

The only films that I’m really sure he was the primary writer on were Shampoo and the second Mission: Impossible film. The first Mission: Impossible film is probably more typical of what Towne is paid extremely well to do. After going through a number of screenwriters, the production didn’t have much of a script. Brian De Palma (the guy who made good films at one time) put together a few action sequences in pre-production, so Towne took David Koepp’s basic story line (What?! Team leader double crosses team?) and De Palma’s action sequences and created some kind of a structure. In the end, the film almost seems like it makes sense.

Mission: Impossible II makes a lot more sense. It is riddled with Hollywood movie cliches and its most clever plot twist is so unbelievable that it would make Stan Lee wince. But it is a good vehicle for John Woo and probably as good a thing as he did in America. But it does highlight something unpleasant: being a writer for hire is probably the perfect thing for Robert Towne.

But sometimes a great craftsman gets the perfect project and great art is born. And that is the case with Chinatown. Actually, The Two Jakes is a great script too. It shows that having a great director is also important though. Towne did some directing too. Nothing worth mentioning. Let’s forget all that and just watch a little Chinatown. The following scene brings together three ideas that are very important to me: (1) money is a self-aggrandizing game for the powerful; (2) under the right circumstances, people are capable of anything; and (3) the powerful are far more likely to be evil than the weak.

Happy birthday Robert Towne!

2 thoughts on “Robert Towne

  1. I’ve seen “Chinatown” maybe 10 times, and only just now did I pick up the bit at the end of this scene. Huston’s thug doesn’t just point his gun at Nicholson’s head; he flicks Nicholson’s ear. I remembered that, as I remember the whole thing. But, duh, ear — I never brained out the significance of that before. I is a dum-dum.

    I don’t know how the pantheon of “great directors” gets canonized, but it’s crazy Polanski isn’t on it. Maybe it’s ‘cuz I was a projectionist as a kid, I dunno, yet for whatever reason I’m crazy about how films and photography “look.” Composition of the image. Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, David Lean — their work makes me thrilled in a way humane and otherwise brilliant artists can’t. Polanski’s right up there. That scene just looks friggin’ amazing.

    I remember watching the movie with my 15-year-old brother. He was appalled. “The rich guy wins!” “Yeah,” I said, the rich guy always wins.” My brother ended up working for Schwartzenegger and becoming a bizness exec, so maybe I gave him the wrong message. Nice guy, though. Sends musicals when I’m sad! Who would do that … ;)

    • I think of Polanski as one of the great filmmakers. I assumed that all cinephiles did. Of course, there is that pedophilia thing.

      Yes, the thing with the ear is both great business and great theme. I assume it is in the script.

      I just saw Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia. It was a very early script by Towne. And it isn’t too good. No one is perfect.

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