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Una sedicente signora Mulray si presenta a Gittes perchè investighi sulla infedeltà coniugale del marito. Gittes lo pedina giorno e notte per colline, torrenti, in riva all'oceano, finchè un giorno riesce a fotografarlo con una giovane donna in barca, sul laghetto di un parco. Una foto della donna appare sui giornali di Los Angeles, all'insaputa di Gittes, al quale si presenta la vera signora Mulray e minaccia di denunciarlo alla polizia. La vicenda si complica ancor di più quando si trova l'ingegner Mulray annegato e Gittes viene sfregiato al naso. Inoltre avvengono misteriose dispersioni di acqua nell'oceano dai serbatoi pubblici della città . Nell'intricatissima vicenda Gittes si accorge di aver toccato degli interessi di personaggi potentissimi, che hanno comperato distese enormi di terreno, che dovranno essere in futuro irrigate dall'acqua del lago artificiale. L'organizzazione degli speculatori vuole a tutti i costi farlo realizzare col concorso del pubblico denaro. A capo di questa organizzazione mafiosa c'è il vecchio potentissimo Noah Cross che Gittes scopre essere il padre della signora Mulray, e scopre pure un doloroso segreto di famiglia: la giovane donna, fotografata sulla barca con l'ing. Mulray, è figlia e sorella della signora Mulray, violentata a 15 anni dal padre. Nel quartiere di Chinatown, mentre le due donne stanno per fuggire in auto verso il Messico, interviene la polizia, connivente con la malavita, e colpisce a morte la signora Mulray. Noah Cross si prende la figlia della sua violenza e Jack Gittes viene allontanato dalla polizia.
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It starts with photos of a couple in the woods. They were taken by a private investigator. Then he has another client, a wife knows about her husband’s involvement with another woman. “Money doesn’t matter”! [Too good to be true?] Gittes attends a public meeting about the LA water supply. That proposed dam won’t hold because of the foundation, says the Chief Engineer. Gittes follows him, so does another operative. A picture makes front page news. Later he gets a visitor and a legal paper. Gittes goes to Mr. Mulwray’s office, he’s not there. The drought is affecting farming. [Los Angeles is a semi-desert land.] Mulwray has a palatial home. [On a city salary?] Gittes wants to know who hired him under false pretenses. But Mulwray can’t answer questions now. The police question his wife, but she doesn’t know anything. Gittes visits the morgue and learns about another drowning victim.
That night Gittes visits the river. A shot is fired, then water rushes down! He escapes, but is threatened by two men. [Where is the revolver that private detectives always carried?] Later he meets Mrs. Mulwray for a candid discussion. His investigation learns more about the previous owners of the water supply. Is there something crooked in the Water Department? Mr. Cross talks to Gittes about Mulwray. “Find the girl!” Gittes looks up the names of the property owners - most were bought in the last year. Gittes goes to investigate those orange groves and finds trouble. Men have bought tens of thousands of acres after forcing small farmers off their lands! [Like in those old Westerns.] Next Gittes goes to a nursing home to check it out. He reads the names of the guests. There is trouble when he is recognized! Should he get too close to a client? [No, they’ll want a discount next.] The telephone rings. Mrs. Mulwray has to go. She warns Gittes about her father, a dangerous man.
Gittes has a crude trick to follow her. He peeks into the windows of that house. Who is that girl? “She’s my sister.” Gittes gets a telephone call at night and is given an address. When he arrives he finds a body! The police arrive and question him. They suspect Evelyn as the murderer. Gittes goes to her home and talks to the gardener. Next to the Cross home to find Evelyn. He asks Evelyn about Katherine Cross, the girl. He acts unusually rough with Evelyn! Is there a family secret here? [Does this seem implausible?] Gittes visits Curly, his friend. [Is this supposed to be comic relief?] He arranges for transportation, then calls Mr. Cross. Cross has plans to incorporate the valley into Los Angeles. There is a final showdown to end this story. [Did you find the details believable?]
This is an interesting story with an odd twist in the ending. But it runs on too long and could use better editing. Some parts could be edited as not “politically correct”, needlessly insulting to some people. There are better murder mysteries around, from the 1930s and 1940s. “Murder, My Sweet” or “The Big Sleep” is one good example. Private detectives represented the small businesses of that era, later to be replaced by stories about government agents, overt or covert. The real history about controlling the water supplies of Los Angeles would make a better story. This would be about the influence of big landowners and the crooked government they control. The one big fault is the failure for Gittes to carry a revolver, as with other private detective movies from that era. People had the right to keep and bear arms then, even in California!