The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson

Scribbling the 500 pages of notes he produced while laboring on the script that would soon be celebrated as one of the greatest ever to emerge from Hollywood, Robert Towne occasionally paused to jot down ideas for a title: Lost in the Sun; Deal Me Out; Last Chance; Jake’s Limit; The Third Coming. Some were even worse than those.

Even though what became Chinatown is really about greed, incest, and—truly—water rights; even though it has little to do with to do with Chinese-American culture, or politics, or people; and despite the fact that its action doesn’t arrive in the eponymous neighborhood until the last six minutes, both the title and the film itself turned out to be just about perfect. And the movie’s closing line—“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”—makes the indirection in the title worth it. Sam Wasson’s book about Chinatown, with its equally opaque, entirely Chandlerian title, is awfully good, too. Regarding The Big Goodbye, you’ll just have to trust me: having read it thoroughly and enthusiastically, I still have no idea what the title means—but the book is as fine an unwrapping of the moviemaking process as I’ve read.