Former Ventura County Sheriff Claude Mulvihill

I read Robert Towne’s script and watched Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir Chinatown (1974) this week for noir106. This class is becoming an excuse for all kinds of fun things. We’re focusing on writing out of the gate this time around, and Paul Bond added the script of Chinatown as one example. I’ve seen the film several times, but never read the script. Doing the two in concert, I was struck by how few changes to the script (including the stage direction and shots) where made.

ChinaYelburtonMulvihill

Rather than going through all the differences, I wanted to focus on one relatively small, but interesting one. In the scene where Gittes first goes to the L.A. Department of Water & Power to find Mulwray, he runs into an old acquaintance: hired thug Claude Mulvihill. In the script (page 24-25), Gittes talks some smack on Mulvihill:

He goes out the door, nearly running into a man who is standing by the Secretary’s desk – about GITTES’ age only a head taller and a foot wider, dressed in a plain suit that fits him about as well as a brown paper bag.

                              GITTES
Mulvihlll, what are you doing here?

OUTER OFFICE – YELBURTON, MULVIHILL AND GITTES
MULVIHILL stares at Gittes with unblinking eyes, remains by
the desk.
MULVIHILL
They shut my water off, what’s it to you?

                              GITTES
How’d you find out? You don’t drink it, you don’t take a bath in it, maybe they sent you a letter. Ah, but then you’d have to be able to read.

The two face-off, but that’s the end of it in the script. In the scene from the film, however, there’s a bit more. Yelburton explains to Gittes that Mulvihill was hired to guard against the desperate farmers in the valley who have become dangerous given the drought. Setting up what’s to come. In response, Gittes provides a little backstory about Mulvihill that I found interesting. While Ventura Country Sheriff during prohibition, he let rumrunners run tons of alcohol into the country. He was a corrupt cop, and in many ways hearkens back to the gangster era of prohibition that informs some of the earlier noir of Dashiell Hammett, in particular his 1929 novel Red Harvest. You can see the entire scene below.

I liked this bit because it provided some backstory to an otherwise laconic and purely violent character. Admittedly, it only serves to reinforce his brutality, but I liked the way it situated these two characters’ histories within a long line of corruption and greed. There is a whole story there between the two that makes the tension between them that much more compelling. It also highlights two of the major themes of the film: 1) power and money outstrip any broader sense of law and order, 2) in this film everything revolves around water, even this small detail about Mulvihill.

Fun fact: Looking at Towne’s Wikipedia page, I learned he met with writer John Fante to talk about 1930s LA while researching Chinatown.Which is interesting because Paul and I included Fante’s Ask the Dust (which Towne made into a film in 2006) on our Hardboiled fiction syllabus back in 2012—knowing it was a stretch. At the same time, it’s a book I come back to again and again when I read novella’s like The Postman Always Rings Twice or watch Chinatown. Now I know why 🙂

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5 Responses to Former Ventura County Sheriff Claude Mulvihill

  1. You did a post in 2009 on a Sears toy ambulance that I use to have for my kids. I am searching for it as I can’t find ours. Do you own it and if so, could I purchase?? conoil@yahoo.com Thanks so much! angela

  2. Paul says:

    I was fascinated by the descriptiveness of Towne’s script, like that line “dressed in a plain suit that fits him about as well as a brown paper bag.” Things like that let the script stand as a story on its own, without the film. But the little differences stand out to me too. The script has this little transition between the first and second scenes:

    EXT. CITY HALL – MORNING
    already shimmering with heat. A drunk blows his nose with his fingers into the fountain at the foot of the steps. Gittes, impeccably dressed, passes the drunk on the way up the stairs.

    I just looked at the movie on Netflix and it cuts from the scene in Gittes’ office to the meeting in City Hall, without anyone snotting in a fountain. It’s just a little thing, a throwaway shot that probably ended up on the editing room floor, but it’s filthy and gross, like the movie’s later revelations.

    When I read it, it surprised me because by this point I should know the movie by heart. I wondered how I could have missed it. Now I wonder how it would have impacted the movie had it been included.

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