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Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne dies at 89

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Screenwriter Robert Towne wrote one of the most quoted lines in movie history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

JOE MANTELL: (As Lawrence Walsh) Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

SHAPIRO: Towne won an Academy Award for the screenplay of "Chinatown," which came out in 1974. He died Monday night in Los Angeles at the age of 89. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GOLDSMITH'S "LOVE THEME FROM CHINATOWN (MAIN TITLE)")

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The guy who wrote "Chinatown" grew up in and around Los Angeles, and he never really left. The movie is a super-specific LA detective story about water rights, real estate and murder, but also so much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT TOWNE: Chinatown itself, I guess, is a sort of metaphor for the futility of good intentions.

ULABY: That's Robert Towne on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOWNE: Individual actions don't necessarily matter.

ULABY: He was born Robert Bertram Schwartz. He started writing for TV soon after attending Pomona College. By the heady days of the 1970s, Robert Towne was a go-to script doctor on the likes of "Bonnie And Clyde" and "The Godfather." He wrote or co-wrote or helped with dozens of movies, but his undisputed masterpiece was "Chinatown"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

ROMAN POLANSKI: (As Man with Knife) You know what happens to nosy fellows?

ULABY: ...Writing scenes now stuck in our heads, like when Jack Nicholson's nose gets split open by a thug.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

POLANSKI: (As Man with Knife) OK. They lose their noses.

ULABY: That tiny act of violence stood for larger ones, Towne said, and it was appropriate for a detective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOWNE: A detective who - is like a hound - is, you know, sniffing out the trail of some kind of criminal or villain. It just seemed like the perfect thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

POLANSKI: (As Man with Knife) Cut it off and feed it to my goldfish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOWNE: In screenwriting, what you don't say is at least as important as what you do say. It's a discipline to try to imagine exactly how much you don't want said.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As J.J. Gittes) I said I want the truth.

ULABY: In yet another indelible scene, Jack Nicholson terrorizes Faye Dunaway into admitting an appalling family secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHINATOWN")

FAYE DUNAWAY: (As Evelyn Mulwray) She's my daughter.

ULABY: Nicholson slaps her. Every single slap, Towne said, was written in the script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOWNE: The only way you're going to believe that what she says is true is if she's reluctant to talk about it. As a general rule, anything that you want an audience to believe is something that a character has to reveal reluctantly.

ULABY: Robert Towne never again quite matched "Chinatown's" glory. His career mirrored much of Hollywood's triumphs and excesses of the era. He liked to say that Hollywood was too obsessed with jobs, both onscreen and off. His characters were obsessed with the struggle for integrity, which, so often in his stories, seemed unwinnable.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE GRUSIN'S "THE FIRM (MAIN TITLE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.