Robert Towne Essay - Critical Essays

Towne, Robert


Robert Towne 1936(?)–

(Full name Robert Burton Towne; also wrote under the pseudonyms P. H. Vazak and Edward Wain) American screenwriter, director, and actor.

The following entry provides an overview of Towne's career through 1994.

Towne is most famous for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film Chinatown (1974). Widely regarded as the best screenwriter in Hollywood, he is also renowned for his uncredited rewriting—or "screen doctoring"—of the scripts for such noted films as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972). Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, epitomizes Towne's cinematic trademarks of rigidly structured and meticulously detailed plots, controversial themes, and intriguing, offbeat characters. Having gained critical acclaim for directing his own screenplays, namely Personal Best (1982) and Tequila Sunrise (1988), Towne has been compared to such prominent and influential Hollywood writers as Ben Hecht, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz, and Charles Brackett.

Biographical Information

Born in San Pedro, California, Towne studied philosophy and literature at Pomona State College before dropping out to join the army. After military service, he took a series of acting classes where he met producer-director Roger Corman—for whom he wrote his first screenplay, The Last Woman on Earth (1960)—and his longtime friend and collaborator Jack Nicholson. While "doctoring" screenplays for a variety of Hollywood directors during the 1960s and early 1970s—most notably rewriting much of Bonnie and Clyde for director Arthur Penn and devising a crucial scene between Michael Corleone and his father, Vito, in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather—Towne also scripted episodes for the television series The Outer Limits and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In the 1970s Towne wrote three highly acclaimed screenplays: The Last Detail (1973), based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; Chinatown; and Shampoo (1975), an Academy Award-nominated collaboration with Warren Beatty. In the 1980s Towne produced and directed two of his own scripts, Personal Best and Tequila Sunrise. However, because of budgeting difficulties and his reputation for costly, painstaking attention to detail, studios were reluctant to back Towne on future producing and directing assignments. In 1990 Jack Nicholson starred in and directed Towne's screenplay The Two Jakes, the long-awaited sequel to Chinatown; and in the 1990s Towne and Beatty worked together on the script for Love Affair (1994), which is based on two earlier films, Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957).

Major Works

While his plots and settings vary widely from script to script, nearly all of Towne's screenplays explore complex moral and social themes. His first critical success came with the script for The Last Detail, a story about two seasoned navy petty officers, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, who are assigned to escort a young, naive seaman to the naval prison in Portsmouth, Virginia. Before completing their mission, however, the two men treat their troubled but good-hearted prisoner to a final good time. The offbeat humor and dark side of life portrayed in The Last Detail are explored in much greater depth in Chinatown. A detective story modeled after those written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Chinatown evokes the style of the film noir genre of the 1940s and deals with moral and ethical questions. In telling the story of detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, and his search for a missing girl, the film explores the history of Los Angeles and examines the depths of moral corruption. Towne summed up the film succinctly: "I wanted to tell a story about a man who raped the land and his daughter in the name of the future." The following year, Towne and Beatty's script for Shampoo addressed what Joel Bellman called "the social contradictions and manic energy" of the 1960s; with director Hal Ashby they examined the libidinous life of a hairdresser named George, whose many relationships bring him in contact with the social and political leaders of Los Angeles on the even of the 1968 presidential election. In Personal Best Towne explored female intimacy among young American women athletes who prepared for the 1980 Olympic games. The film details the relationship of two women, depicting their growth from competitors to friends, lovers, and, finally, to competitors again; the lesbian element of the story generated considerable controversy at the time. Like Personal Best, Towne both wrote and directed Tequila Sunrise, a story about a drug dealer, played by Mel Gibson, trying to retire from his illegal business; a narcotics detective, played by Kurt Russell, who has long been trying to arrest him; and a restaurateur, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who comes between them. The tortuously complex plot and the script's refusal to make moral judgments prompted Mark Horowitz to describe Towne as "a moral filmmaker in the French sense of the word: he's preoccupied with choices and ideas…. Like [Jean] Renoir before him, Towne's black of moral rigidity has often been misperceived as moral laxity."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Towne's work has generally been very favorable. Many critics contend that Towne's reworking of the original storyline in The Last Detail—for example, having the two shore patrol officers deliver their prisoner at the end, rather than allowing him to escape as they do in the novel—together with his superb use of salty dialogue and humor, are considerable improvements on the book. Chinatown is generally considered a masterpiece of narrative structure and plot development. Commentators have praised Towne's interweaving of a multilayered mystery plot with an examination and evocation of the history of southern California. Tony Slade has remarked that the depiction of Jake Gittes as an "ingenious but naive quester seeking answers to questions he can barely comprehend … aims toward the high reaches of tragedy." Several commentators, however, have pointed out inconsistencies in the development of Towne's characters. For example, Slade argues that Gittes's true motivation for following his case to its bitter end is never made clear and that Gittes's stated purpose of protecting his reputation is ultimately unconvincing. Similarly, some critics find implausible the final scenes of Shampoo, when George begins to question his undisciplined lifestyle. Some critics have also suggested that Tequila Sunrise and The Two Jakes suffer from overly complex, "out of control" plots that impair the believability of both the stories and their characters. Additionally, while many applaud Towne's determination to address issues with strong moral implications, some commentators have faulted his refusal to take a clear-cut moral stand. Nevertheless, filmmakers and critics generally agree that Towne is an extremely talented screenwriter and filmmaker and that his work represents a major contribution to the art of American film.

∗Principal Works

The Last Woman on Earth [as Edward Wain] (screenplay) 1960
The Tomb of Ligeia [adaptor; from the short story "Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe] (screenplay) 1965
Villa Rides [with Sam Peckinpah; adaptors from the book Pancho Villa by William Douglas Lansford] (screenplay) 1968
The Last Detail [adaptor; from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan] (screenplay) 1973
Chinatown (screenplay) 1974
Shampoo [with Warren Beatty] (screenplay) 1975
The Yakuza [with Paul Schrader] (screenplay) 1975
Personal Best (screenplay) 1982
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes [as P. H. Vazak, with Michael Austin; adaptors from the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs] (screenplay) 1984
The Natural [with Phil Dusenberry; adaptors from the novel by Bernard Malamud] 1984
Tequila Sunrise (screenplay) 1988
Days of Thunder [with Tom Cruise] (screenplay) 1990
The Two Jakes (screenplay) 1990
Love Affair [with Warren Beatty; adaptors from the screenplays for the films Love Affair, written by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart, and An Affair to Remember, written by Daves and Leo McCarey] (screenplay) 1994

∗In addition to the films listed above, for which Towne received either sole or shared screenwriting credit, he has also worked without screen credit on numerous films. The most prominent of these include Bonnie and Clyde (1967), for which he is credited as "special consultant"; The Godfather (1972); Marathon Man (1976); Reds (1981); Swing Shift (1984); 8 Million Ways to Die (1985); Fatal Attraction (1987); and Frantic (1988).

†Towne also directed these films.


Pauline Kael (review date 11 February 1974)

SOURCE: "Nicholson's High," in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 51, February 11, 1974, pp. 95-6.

[Kael is one of the foremost film critics in the United States. In the following mixed review of The Last Detail, she argues that despite Towne's improvements on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, the film remains calculatingly sentimental.]

In The Last Detail, you can see the kid who hasn't grown up in Nicholson's grin, and that grin has the same tickle it had when he played the giddy, drunken Southern lawyer in Easy Rider, but now it belongs to the ravaged face of an aging sailor. The role of Buddusky, the tattooed signalman, first class, is the best...

(The entire section is 1468 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 23 February 1974)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Detail, in The New Republic, Vol. 170, No. 8, February 23, 1974, pp. 22, 33-4.

[Kauffmann, one of the most respected and well-known film critics in the United States, has reviewed movies for The New Republic for many years. In the following positive review of The Last Detail, he notes a number of Towne's improvements to the novel upon which the film is based.]

There's a kind of film that reveals its entire shape very early, with a cleverness that makes us both interested and wary. During such a picture the main question isn't "What happens next?" It's "Are they going to muff it?" Some examples, differently successful:...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Martin Kasindorf (essay date 14 October 1974)

SOURCE: "Hot Writer," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 16, October 14, 1974, pp. 114-114B.

[In the following, Kasindorf discusses Towne's approach to screenwriting and his experiences working on Chinatown.]

The Hollywood star system is back stronger than ever. Once again it's an age of the hot performer, the hot director—and now the hot screenwriter. Where for years studios were reluctant to take chances on original screen-plays, preferring adaptations of "sure-fire" hit plays and books, now the bidding for original scripts is fierce. The success of originals like David S. Ward's Oscar-winning The Sting, William Goldman's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Charles Michener (review date 10 February 1975)

SOURCE: "Don Juan in Beverly Hills," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXV, No. 6, February 10, 1975, p. 51.

[In the following excerpt, Michener favorably reviews Towne's collaboration with Warren Beatty on Shampoo, suggesting that "many people will view Shampoo as 'Warren Beatty's film,' not just because he is listed as producer, co-author and star, but because his public persona is … in many ways its central subject and joke."]

Warren Beatty, a rich, complicated man with a reputation as Hollywood's most active Don Juan, has made a rich, complicated comedy about the perils of Don Juan-ing called Shampoo. To imply that Beatty alone is responsible for its...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Robert Towne with John Brady (interview date 1981)

SOURCE: An interview in The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters, Simon and Schuster, 1981, pp. 366-432.

[Brady is an American nonfiction writer, interviewer, and critic. In the following excerpt, Towne discusses his screenwriting career, focusing on his scripts for Chinatown and Shampoo, and describes his "script-doctoring" work on such films as The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde.]

[Brady]: When did you start writing for movies?

[Towne]: About 1960. It was on and off. I started with Roger Corman doing horror and science fiction films—almost the same time that Jack Nicholson started...

(The entire section is 11347 words.)

Jack Kroll (review date 8 February 1982)

SOURCE: "Chariots of Desire," in Newsweek, Vol. XCIX, No. 6, February 8, 1982, p. 60.

[In the following review, Kroll favorably discusses Personal Best, contending that it not only "takes the world of track and field as a microcosm for the ecstacies and pains of self-striving," but also explores lesbianism as "a paradigm of authentic human intimacy."]

Robert Towne's splendid film Personal Best opens at the 1976 Olympic track tryouts at Eugene, Ore. In the first shot you're looking at a screen filled with blurred, sungold images. Then, slowly, the profiled face of Mariel Hemingway drops into the frame in sharp focus, two beads of sweat glistening at the...

(The entire section is 1017 words.)

Laurie Stone (review date 16 March 1982)

SOURCE: "Personal Best: What's New in Towne," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 11, March 16, 1982, pp. 52-3.

[In the following review, Stone discusses Towne's treatment of women's sports and lesbian sex in Personal Best, contending that "the themes are entwined in a startlingly innovative way."]

Nervous sweat drips off Mariel Hemingway's face as she sets up for a sprint in Personal Best, and real life bursts through decades of movie convention. We've seen sport as background to romance in the charming caprice, Pat and Mike. We've seen the athlete as manipulated beauty: Susan Anton in Golden Girl. But we've never before seen the...

(The entire section is 2418 words.)

Michael Sragow (essay date January-February 1989)

SOURCE: "Darkness at the Edge of Towne," in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 4, January-February, 1989, pp. 40-61.

[In the following excerpt, Sragow surveys Towne's career, focusing on Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise, and his reputation in Hollywood.]

"… Nobody wants me to quit. 'Don't quit, don't get caught, stay on top long enough for us to knock you off.' That's the motto around here. Nobody wants me to quit. The cops wanna bust me, the Colombians want my connections, my wife wants my money, her lawyer agrees and mine likes getting paid to argue with them. Nobody wants me to quit—hey, I haven't even mentioned my customers. You know they don't...

(The entire section is 5149 words.)

Mark Horowitz (essay date November-December 1990)

SOURCE: "Fault Lines," in Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 6, November-December, 1990, pp. 52-5, 57-8.

[In the following essay, Horowitz analyzes Towne's career through The Two Jakes and reassesses the significance of Chinatown as "the lens through which all of his other films are judged."]

Sixteen years have gone by since we first met Chinatown's Jake Gittes, the Los Angeles private eye who specialized in divorce cases, though he preferred the more delicate term "matrimonial work." By whatever name, Gittes' métier was still the sleazy but lucrative snooping on adulterers that his closest professional rival, Philip Marlowe, fastidiously eschewed. It has...

(The entire section is 4321 words.)

David Ansen (review date 24 October 1994)

SOURCE: "An Old Affair Revisited," Newsweek, Vol. CXXIV, No. 17, October 24, 1994, p. 76.

[In the following mixed review of Towne's Love Affair, Ansen asks: "Why do another remake of the sentimental classics Love Affair and An Affair to Remember … if you're not prepared to wallow in four-hankie heaven?"]

Like every movie Warren Beatty has produced, Love Affair is made with skill, the participation of topnotch talents and considerable taste. There are times, however, when good taste can get in your way. Why do another remake of the sentimental classics Love Affair and An Affair to Remember (both directed by Leo McCarey, in...

(The entire section is 335 words.)

Further Reading


Alpert, Hollis. "Jack, The Private Eye." Saturday Review/World 1, No. 23 (27 July 1974): 46.

Positive review of Chinatown that concludes the film "is clever, cunning, tricky, and superbly acted."

Cocks, Jay. "Lost Angelenos." Time 104, No. 1 (1 July 1974): 42.

Contends that Chinatown successfully recreates "the ambience of Los Angeles before the [Second World] war," but argues that the story's protagonist, J. J. Gittes, though "a kind of genial guide through all the thickets of plot," is not a fully developed character.


(The entire section is 399 words.)