Paramount // 1974 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 5th, 2012
Forget it, Jake.
Is there a more cynical movie that Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown? Though made a few decades after the "noir" mystery movement in American cinema, Chinatown doesn't miss a step -- and even adds a few of its own, too. It takes all the conventions of the noir genre and infuses them with the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate mistrust of just about any and all institutions found in a number of '70s films. It is a movie that suggests such darkness and decay at the heart of man that to see it is to be devastated at the twists it takes. It's also brilliantly written, expertly acted and beautifully directed. It is a movie for which few superlatives can hardly suffice.
Jack Nicholson (The Departed) stars as Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective working an adultery case in 1930s Los Angeles. He's been hired by Evelyn Mulwray to keep an eye on her husband, Hollis Mulray (John Huston), the man in charge of the LA Department of Water and Power, who is at the center of a controversy when photos of him and another woman surface just as he's attempting to oversee the construction of a new dam. Gittes takes the case, only to be approached by a woman claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, Network); embarrassed, Gittes begins to investigate why he was hired by an impostor. What he begins to uncover is secret after secret, from some shady goings-on with the LA water supply to murder to something much, much deeper and darker.
Jake Gittes is one of Nicholson's best characters, and Chinatown features what is arguably his best performance (there are those that would make a case for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but we'll have to agree to disagree). It works so well precisely because it plays against so many of the qualities we've come to expect from Nicholson. We are used to seeing him as devious, sly, a little bit (or a lot) crazy with a gleam in his eye. Chinatown strips much of that away. Gittes is a little slow to figure things out. He cannot conceive of the ugliness he encounters. He is an essentially decent man in a world that is indecent and only growing more so, and there is such sadness to that realization from which Nicholson does not shy away. As a guy who would eventually develop some bad habits as an actor (including, but not limited to, a propensity to wildly overact), Nicholson was at his best in the '70s, and Chinatown remains his best work because it takes the actor's usual persona and turns it around on itself.
It's fitting, too, that Roman Polanski himself would play the criminal henchman that slices open Jake Gittes' nose, because as a filmmaker, Polanski has always seemed to take pleasure in inflicting punishment on his audience -- he's one of the few legitimate successors to Hitchcock. He's the master of mounting dread, from Rosemary's Baby to Repulsion to The Tenant; with Chinatown, though, it's a different kind of dread that slowly creeps in -- the long, slow realization of man's capacity for evil. Gone is the hysteria and paranoia of Polanski's previous films. Instead, he takes a classic Hollywood genre and layers it with long-buried atrocities and loneliness. That this is the last movie Polanski would make in America before fleeing the country following rape charges only makes it resonate more, since it seems to suggest that the sins of the past will go unanswered for by those in power.
There's good news and bad news about Paramount's new Chinatown Blu-ray. The bad news is that the supplemental material, while interesting and worthwhile, is all stuff that's been ported over from previous DVD releases. There is no new bonus content found on the disc. The good news is that the movie looks absolutely great in HD, with a 1080p transfer that cleans things up so well the movie looks like it was made last year. Maybe that's overstating things a bit -- occasional flaws are visible, DNR has been applied and there is some mild crushing of blacks -- but for a movie that's nearly 40 years old, this is an excellent transfer. The subdued color palette is expertly represented, detail is good throughout and there's a good layer of visible grain to keep it looking like film (which dorks like me love, and will miss when everything ultimately coverts to digital). Two English-language audio tracks are available: one that offers the movie's original mono soundtrack and a second, TrueHD lossless 5.1 surround mix. Honestly, the differences between the two tracks aren't significant, which is a testament to the reservation and good judgment used in creating the surround mix. There's a little more dimensionality and separation of the audio, but the track never goes crazy or overdoes things to the point of sacrificing the integrity of the filmmakers' intentions. It's nice that Paramount has included a mono mix for the purists, but either track is totally serviceable.
All of the bonus features come from Paramount's "Centennial Collection" edition of the film released in 2009. The best among them is a feature-length audio commentary from the movie's screenwriter, Robert Towne, and director David Fincher, who is on hand as a fan of the movie and an interviewer of sorts. Though it's a pretty mellow track and prone to some lapses in the conversation, there's a whole lot of good information here that only serves to increase one's appreciation of the movie; Fincher is so knowledgeable about filmmaking and so enthusiastic about Chinatown that he's got a lot to say, while Towne has a number of firsthand production anecdotes and insight into the movie. Fans of the movie and students of filmmaking will get a lot out of the commentary. Next up is a feature-length documentary, Water and Power, in which Robert Towne and a host of talking heads look back at the real-life history of water in LA. It's an interesting piece that provides some real-world context for the plot of Chinatown, but not the kind of thing I'm likely to return to again. A 30-minute "appreciation" for the movie includes comments from the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, James Newton Howard and Roger Deakins, while "The Beginning of the End," "Filming" and "The Legacy" include contributions from Nicholson, Polanski, Towne and producer Robert Evans, who cover the film's pre-production, shooting and the impact it had when it was released.
Chinatown was and remains one of the best films of the 1970s, an update on the film noir tradition that's also as good or better than anything else the genre has to offer (all that's missing is the stark black and white photography, but that would be all wrong for this story; this one is about beautiful, sun-soaked LA and the darkness that its landscapes conceals). Though the Blu-ray offers no new special features, the inclusion of good (previously released) bonus content and excellent A/V quality make this a must-own for anyone who doesn't already have it in his or her library. It's a true American classic.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R