Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Robert Towne
Stars: Jack Nicholson (J.J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Escobar), John Hillerman (Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Mulvihill), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Richard Bakalyan (Loach), Joe Mantell (Walsh), Bruce Glover (Duffy), Nandu Hinds (Sophie), James O’Rear (Lawyer), James Hong (Evelyn’s Butler), Beulah Quo (Maid), Jerry Fujikawa (Gardener)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1974
Country: U.S.
Chinatown Blu-Ray Cover
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of the great masterworks of ’70s American cinema and an apex of the decade’s obsession with genre revisionism. Along with Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Altman’s Nashville (1975), and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), which reimagined the gangster film, the musical, and the monster movie, respectively, Chinatown helped usher in a new era of gutsy American cinema in which the genres of Hollywood’s golden age were rewritten with new rules, heightened aesthetic intensity, and a sharper, if frequently more despondent, tone that no longer had to play by the dictates of the industry’s Production Code.

Robert Towne’s screenplay, still hailed as one of the finest ever written and a model that aspiring screenwriters study and attempt to emulate, pays loving homage to, while also slyly undercutting, many of the dictates of the hard-boiled detective story, which was forged by pulp writers like Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane and then given expressive cinematic life in ’40s and ’50s film noir by filmmakers such as John Huston, Jules Dassin, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Orson Welles. Set in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Chinatown was one of the first modern films to consciously evoke the bygone era of film noir. Even though it was shot in color, John Alonzo’s sepia cinematography, which frequently resembles old postcards, has the same visual effect as black-and-white while also emphasizing the arid environment in a way that purely monochromatic images never could (which is absolutely crucial for a film that centers on the centrality of water in the power struggle over the development of Los Angeles).

One of the means by which the film deviates sharply from the films that inspired it is the protagonist. Unlike Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), which is generally considered the first true film noir, Jack Nicholson’s private detective J.J. Gittes is not a primal masculine archetype, but rather a complicated and at times unintentionally absurd protagonist whose sense of control is highly illusory. The film immediately establishes his less-than-ideal persona via his work snapping pictures of adulterous spouses, a lowbrow form of detective work that is typically beneath the more admirable private eyes. His dapper sense of style makes him into a vain dandy of sorts, and while he manages to hold his own most of the time, he is also made to play the fool, such as when he insists on telling a bawdy joke in an inappropriate situation.

Far from cool and collected, he is simply self-possessed, and much of the film pivots on undercutting his misplaced self-confidence, never so directly (and painfully) than the scene in which a pint-sized thug (played, not incidentally, by Polanski himself) slices his nostril with a switchblade. The cutting itself causes us to wince, although it leads directly to the ridiculous image of Nicholson playing the tough detective with a massive white bandage on his nose—in other words, vintage Polanski.

Other characters also play into and against expectations. Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a mysterious woman whose husband (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer with the city’s power and water department, is murdered, provides an endless stream of contradictions and apparent secrets. Her evasiveness and mood swings suggest the manipulations of yet another dangerous femme fatale, but Dunaway’s vulnerability constantly tempts us with the notion that she is the victim, rather than the villain. Outright villainy is instead embodied by Noah Cross, Evenlyn’s father and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Los Angeles. Played with insidious gusto by the great John Huston, who directed Bogart in The Maltese Falcon three decades earlier, Noah Cross is one of the cinema’s most unnerving depictions of evil. He is, in every sense, J.J. Gittes’s opposite, not in some simplistic sense of good-versus-evil morality, but rather in the sense that Gittes’s illusion of control is Noah Cross’s reality.

In hindsight, we recognize that the narrative momentum in Chinatown moves us inexorably toward the revelation of the depths of Noah Cross’s depravity, which are at once so banal and so horrific that we are left baffled, troubled, and lost. The key line of dialogue in the film is when Cross tells Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with. But believe me, you don’t,” to which Gittes responds by snickering and saying, “That’s what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.” He thinks he can get to the bottom of the case by exposing Cross and his illegal dealings, but it is that very ambition—which, not incidentally, climaxes in Chinatown, the film’s all-encompassing heart of darkness—that swallows him whole. His intense desire to know is the seed of his own destruction, as well as others around him.

Notoriously bleak, yet utterly compelling, Chinatown’s ending (which was a source of great contention between Towne and Polanski and was undecided when production on the film began) is one of the greatest of modern cinema in the sense that it is so complete in its depiction of evil triumphant that it transcends the screen and demands that we reflect on it philosophically. Like the ending of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski’s great horror masterpiece, the brute force of its ugly truth is the heart of the film’s artistry, and it sticks with us. Gittes is famously told “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinartown” at the end of the film, but we can’t. It is, in a word, unforgettable.

Chinatown Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby TrueHD 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
  • Audio commentary by writer Robert Towne and filmmaker David Fincher
  • Water and Power three-part documentary
  • Chinatown: An Appreciation” featurette
  • Chinatown: Filming” featurette
  • Chinatown: The Legacy” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateApril 3, 2012

    Paramount’s 1080p transfer of Chinatown is immensely satisfying in the way it maintains the intended look of the film. Although the high-def transfer is crisp and well-detailed, bringing out nuances in the image I had never seen before (particularly the textures of the fantastic costume designs), it is not overly enhanced or artificially sharpened, instead maintaining the slight softness and grain structure of the 35mm print. The color palette, which tends toward desaturated earthen tones, looks spot-on, and black levels maintain a fine consistency in the nighttime scenes. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel surround soundtrack does a nice job of opening up the original monaural mix without sounding forced, especially where Jerry Goldsmith’s elegant score is concerned. There’s not a whole lot of activity in the surround speakers, but there is just enough to impact the film’s overall ambiance.
    All of the Blu-Ray supplements have been ported over from the 2007 “Special Edition” DVD and the 2009 “Centennial Collection” DVD. From the latter we get an excellent audio commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne and filmmaker/Chinatown appreciator David Fincher, as well as Water and Power, a three-part, 76-minute documentary about the history of the complex aqueduct system, first developed in 1913, that feeds water to Los Angeles. The doc features interviews with Robert Towne; Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of the aqueduct’s chief engineer; and various representatives of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, ranchers, historians, and activists. It provides a fascinating historical backdrop to deepen our understanding of the film and appreciation of Towne’s skillful reimagining of actual history for his screenplay. Also from the “Centennial Collection” we get “Chinatown: An Appreciation,” a half-hour featurette in which directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard offer their thoughts on the film’s brilliance. Ported over from the “Special Edition” DVD are three retrospective featurettes: “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End” (19 min.), “Chinatown: Filming” (25 min.), and “Chinatown: The Legacy” (10 min.), which feature interviews with Robert Towne, director Roman Polanski, star Jack Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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