Some of film history’s most memorable directors created films that were obviously autobiographical—for example, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959), and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). The heroes in these films often seem to be simply better-looking versions of the director (with the exception of Woody Allen, who plays himself). Chinatown, released in 1974 but set in 1937 Los Angeles and starring Jack Nicholson as a hapless private investigator battling real estate crooks, doesn’t seem at first glance to fit into this category. Director Roman Polanski didn’t come to L.A. until 1968, never worked as an investigator, and hardly resembles the brash, all-American Nicholson. Nonetheless, Chinatown does draw heavily on Polanski’s life and experiences. Though the main character, Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, is not a stand-in for Polanksi, the director’s biography is fragmented and refracted onto many separate elements and characters in the film, which both recalls his life’s tragedies and foreshadows the scandals that would subsequently befall him.

Polanski was born in Paris on August 18, 1933, to a Polish father and Russian mother, both Jewish. Some of his first memories, however, would be of Krakow, where the family moved three years after his birth to escape rising anti-Semitism in France. Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and when Polanski was seven, he witnessed the construction of a wall marking his neighborhood as a Jewish ghetto. His parents were soon sent to concentration camps. Polanski escaped the camps by hiding with a local Catholic family his father had bribed, but he had to manage largely on his own, cowering in barns and, on at least one occasion, dodging the bullets of German soldiers. After the war, Polanski reunited with his father, but his mother had perished in a Nazi gas chamber.

Polanski entered art school in Krakow when he was around seventeen years old, spending his free time with acting groups and in movie theaters, which screened primarily German films. In 1954, the elite state film school in Lodz welcomed Polanski as one of only six accepted students. After graduating in 1959, Polanski made several short films, garnering only lukewarm critical response. In 1962, however, his first feature-length film, Nóz w wodzie, was well received and even nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film after its American release (as Knife in the Water) a year later. Eager to take the international stage, Polanski left Poland for England, where he directed three modest successes: Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966), and Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), the last of which starred American actress Sharon Tate, who soon became his wife. The couple settled in Los Angeles, where Paramount producer Robert Evans invited Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby (1968), based on the novel by Ira Levin. The occult thriller’s huge popularity secured Polanski’s professional reputation, showcasing his compositional perfectionism, his ability to sustain a suspenseful and gripping narrative, and his strikingly bold artistic flair.

The triumph of Rosemary’s Baby, however, did not last long. On August 9, 1969, cult leader Charles Manson’s “family” attacked the Polanskis’ Beverly Hills home, murdering a pregnant Sharon Tate and her four guests. Polanski, who had been abroad the evening of the murders, was devastated. Harassed by the relentless American media, he retreated to Europe to make Macbeth (1971). That film’s extreme violence reflected aspects of the Manson slayings. After mistakenly trying his hand at comedy with the little known and unsuccessful What? (1972), Polanski reluctantly agreed to return to the United States to work with his old friend, producer Robert Evans, on Chinatown. Though it was Robert Towne’s masterful screenplay that had lured him back to the States, Polanski made many revisions to it. While Towne fought in favor of an optimistic film, Polanski’s haunted and pessimistic vision prevailed, marking the picture with a devastating flourish that signified the hopelessness of a world gone rotten.

Chinatown’s dark theme is one of the elements that places it in the category of neo-noir, the second generation of the genre known as film noir. Though the precise history of film noir is difficult to define (the term was coined in the journal Cahiers du Cinéma by Nino Frank in 1946), this genre evolved through a combination of German expressionistic drama (such as F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu), American gangster film (Mervyn LeRoy’s 1931 Little Caesar), and popular British mystery novels (by Dorothy Sayers, H. C. Bailey, Agatha Christie, and the like). Several common features characterized film noir pictures, which were popular in the United States during the 1940s and early 1950s: the presence of a beautiful but dangerous woman (known as the femme fatale), gritty and generally urban settings, compositional tension (highly contrasting light and dark colors or oblique camera angles, for example), and themes of moral ambiguity and alienation. To prepare for the making of Chinatown, Polanski studied John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), which is accepted as the first full embodiment of film noir. (Huston himself plays Noah Cross, Chinatown’s most despicable villain). Polanski also read Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels, several of which had been made into film noir classics, such as Murder, My Sweet (1944; originally titled Farewell, My Lovely) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Many scholars insist that film noir is intrinsically linked to World War II and the difficult years of postwar reconstruction (several champion directors of film noir, such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, fled Nazi-occupied territories for Hollywood), and thus Polanski’s war-torn history suits him especially well for the genre. Chinatown, however, is a neo-noir film, and its departures from classic noir elements help to define the newer genre. Most obviously, Polanski shot Chinatown with color film, and though his colors do appear especially vivid (Katherine Cross’s bright, spotless dress and Evelyn Mulwray’s rich, deep eyes, for example), color film precludes the contrast intensity that black and white film offers. In addition, Evelyn Mulwray is emphatically not a femme fatale like the heartless Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity (1944) or the snakelike Kathie Moffat of Out of the Past (1947). Though Jake mistakes her for her husband’s killer at first, Mrs. Mulwray eventually emerges as the story’s most tragic victim. Chinatown also exemplifies the neo-noir theme of big-money corruption. Though this theme is also present in classic noir, Chinatown and its neo-noir progeny (such as 1997’s L.A. Confidential) emphasize malignant commercialism and obsession with money to a far greater extent than did their predecessors.

Chinatown was a box office sensation, and after its nomination for eleven Oscars in 1975, Polanski was a darling of the critics. But only two years later, Polanski was charged with the statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, throwing his name into American tabloids once again and connecting him in the public mind with Chinatown’s child-molesting villain Noah Cross. Nevertheless, Polanski continued directing, having fled to France to avoid standing trial. He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar in 1980 for Tess and won his first Best Director Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist, which he could not accept in person because he is still a fugitive. Polanski now lives in France with his wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their two children.