The classic film Chinatown was shot all over the greater Los Angeles area. Chinatown takes you to Echo Park, downtown Los Angeles, City Hall, Sylmar, San Pedro, Catalina Island, Pasadena, Chinatown, and more. This post will focus on six specific Chinatown filming locations within Los Angeles. Share the post to your heart’s content and subscribe to Los Angeles Noise if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading.
I must have been in high school when I first watched Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The movie continues to be one of my favorites of all time. It has many things going for it: a somber mood, dark storyline, and a bleak ending fitting of a noir classic. And of course, it’s a movie where Los Angeles not only plays itself, but is a star of the film that shines just as bright as Jack Nicholson. The six places below stood out from the very first time I watched the film.
Echo Park Lake
Having lived in Echo Park, I was ecstatic to see Jake Gittes on a rowboat on the Echo Park lake looking to catch Hollis Mulwray in the act with who he believes is his mistress. By the time I moved to Echo Park, the rowboats had already been replaced with paddle boats that looked much the same way but didn’t need physical rowing.
The lake consists of one of the largest lotus beds in the country. They bloom in late spring to early summer and create a fantastic photo opportunity every year. Each year, coinciding with the bloom, the park would hold the Lotus Festival. The festival was a celebration of Asian culture in Los Angeles complete with Dragon Boat races on the lake. During the festival, the lake was surrounded by food and drink vendors, traditional musical performances, and martial arts demonstrations.
The lotus blooms were noticeably shrinking each year as we hit the 2000’s and by 2010, the lotus flowers were practically nonexistent. In 2011, Echo Park was closed to undergo a massive 2-year renovation. The lake was drained, new lotus and other water vegetation were planted along the edges of the lake, walking paths were repaved, and new benches and park information were installed around the lake. The result was a beautiful park that felt more inviting than ever. The renovation also brought a new change to the paddle boats, which now look like giant swans. The boat experience became new again, especially at night when LED strips on the swans light up and illuminate the park for great pictures.
Kensington Road Apartment Building
About midway through the movie, Ida Sessions, the woman who originally hires Gittes to follow Mulwray, is murdered in her apartment. Gittes gets a call in the middle of the night telling him to make his way to 848 1/2 Kensington in Echo Park. “Hey! They mentioned Kensington!” I exclaimed the very first time I watched the movie. There were other movies filmed in the area but this was the first time I heard a mention of a real address of our neighborhood.
Before leaving Echo Park for Rampart, we lived in a small house on East Kensington Road. I loved my time in Echo Park so much that I eventually made my way back as a soon-to-be father in 2002 and have remained ever since. Imagine my surprise when Nicholson parks on Kensington Road and crosses the street to go into the apartment building I would walk past every afternoon returning from school. This was no set, here they were in one of the oldest Los Angeles neighborhoods.
The camera follows Nicholson up the narrow path to the apartment at the very end. Ida’s body lies dead on the floor in an unnatural pose meticulously orchestrated by Roman Polanski. According to The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson, Diane Ladd, the actress who played Ida, found that scene frightening. She mentions, “Everyone thought Roman was replaying the death of his wife.” Polanski’s wife was Sharon Tate, who was one of the victims of the Manson murders in 1969. She was eight months pregnant at the time of the murder.
Big Tujunga Wash
The job at the start of the film is to follow Hollis Mulwray and confirm he is having an affair. Gittes tails Mulwray from a town hall meeting to what we are told is the dry Los Angeles River. The statement originally captivated me because I had driven and walked across the Los Angeles River many times and it didn’t look anything remotely like it did in the film.
The L.A. River as it runs through the city was encased in concrete back in the 30’s in order to prevent flooding during the rainy seasons. Prior to that, people new to the area would mistake the force of the river during the dry season and build their homes along the edges. Then, when the rains came, the river would swell and take with it the recently built structures. There are parts of the river as you follow it upstream and out of the city that are not walled but this scene was not shot at the Los Angeles River at all.
The film is set in Los Angeles but it is still a film. In order to tell the story envisioned by Robert Towne, you have to find the right spots to shoot. In the case of the dry river, we find ourselves in Sylmar, just north of Burbank. The bridge we see is actually Foothill Boulevard as it crosses over the Big Tujunga Wash. To get there from downtown Los Angeles, make your way to the 210, head west, and exit Sunland Boulevard.
As you stand on the bridge looking west, you will see the freeway you just exited. The section of the 210 that stretches from La Cañada Flintridge through Sylmar until it meets the 5 freeway was built between 1971 and 1977. Construction was likely happening during the filming of the movie. The shot we see is from Foothill looking east. Today, there is more traffic on the bridge than there was in ‘74 but you could easily replicate the scene of Gittes spying on Mulwray as he speaks to a kid on horseback and later Gittes himself speaking to that same kid.
San Pedro is the southernmost part of the city and it requires you travel the entire way of the 110 to reach it. Once there, you find a peaceful slice of L.A. complete with vistas not usually associated with our city. I still remember being absolutely freaked out as a kid the first time my parents took me to the Vincent Thomas Bridge. The imposing green structure suddenly appears as you drive along the freeway. Before you realize it, you’re already rising above the port below.
As Gittes continues to tail Hollis Mulwray, this is where he winds up. Gittes parks right next to Walker’s Cafe across from Point Fermin Park. You can just make it out from inside his car as he parks. He follows Mulwray to the end of the street and down to the beach. The area is the Sunken City of San Pedro. These are the remains of an upscale city that in 1929 began to slowly descend into the ocean. From there, you can get a clear view of the jagged rocks Mulwray walks in the movie. This area is off limits and fenced off today but can be accessed if you know where to look.
In terms of film locations, Curly’s house is the biggest surprise. We are introduced to Curly at the beginning of the film. He hired Gittes to check on his wife and he’s flipping through the photos confirming she indeed was having an affair. Later, Jake needs to outsmart the cops who now believe he is involved in the murder of Hollis Mulwray. He tells them he can find his wife, Evelyn Mulwray hiding out in a house in “Peedro.” We cut to their car reaching the house and Jake convinces the cops to let him go in alone to get Evelyn. Once inside, we find he’s actually at Curly’s house and is going to use him to not only get away from the cops but help get Evelyn and her daughter out of the country.
After walking in, we meet Curly’s family, including his wife. They remain together but she now has a black eye. It’s safe to draw our own conclusion of how that “conversation” went down. Gittes and Curly slip out the back of the house and get in Curly’s truck. Gittes ducks down and Curly pulls out of his driveway. The two drive away while the cops remain in the car waiting for Gittes to come out with Evelyn.
I originally figured I would set out to find this house at the point I went out to photograph the San Pedro spots. As it turns out, the house is not in San Pedro but in east Hollywood, just off Melrose and Western. The exterior of the house is beautiful today. It’s beige with green accents on the roof and on the center front window. The front lawn is flanked by two large cacti. A mixture of succulents, cacti, and manicured shrubs adorn the lawn and sidewalk space.
Spring Street, Chinatown
For the majority of the film, Chinatown is only a reference; it is myth, legend. It’s a part of Jake’s past, and part of the past of seemingly most cops in Los Angeles. It is described as a place where as a cop you do “as little as possible.” It is only fitting that the film comes to its dark conclusion there. This ending was not in Robert Towne’s original script. In his original screenplay, Chinatown was to remain only a dark reference. In fact, as shooting began, Towne didn’t actually have an ending to the film. It was Polanski that insisted it close there and it was the two of them together that ultimately wrote out the beautifully bleak ending sequence that would become iconic.
The scene happens on Spring Street. You can stand on Ord Street and look south to see the exact block we see in the film. Today, much of this particular block has changed. If you tried to recreate that scene, it would be easier to use Broadway or Hill streets and probably focus north of Ord. Spring is still undoubtedly Chinatown but the structures are not embellished to visually portray your location. What you do see in the distance is City Hall, which opened in 1926. Chinatown being set in 1937, you could argue it would have been nice to see City Hall in the background almost as an otherworldly structure indicating that Chinatown, while part of Los Angeles, was outside the reach of its laws.
And that is it for today’s piece of Los Angeles lore. Come back for more anytime or just stick around and read through past posts. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please share with your friends and let me know about it. You can also buy me a cup of coffee while we talk about all things Los Angeles.