Paramount // 1974 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // November 6th, 2007
"See Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the
right time and right place, they're capable of anything."
-- Noah Cross (John Huston)
It started when iconic '70s producer Robert Evans offered screenwriter Robert Towne $175,000 to adapt The Great Gatsby (for Evans's then-wife Ali McGraw). Towne (presciently) didn't believe any adaptation of Gatsby would be successful and made a counter offer: $25,000 for his own script, a detective story called Chinatown, that Towne was writing with his friend Jack Nicholson in mind. Evans agreed, and Nicholson got in touch with Roman Polanski and asked him to direct. Polanski cast Faye Dunaway as the female lead and John Huston in a supporting role.
The notoriously volatile Polanski helmed a notoriously volatile shoot. It seems that everyone fought at one time or another, and a couple of key players (cinematographer and composer) had to be replaced on short notice.
Chinatown was released in June 1974 to wide acclaim. The film received recognition from all the major film critics groups as well as eleven Academy Award nominations, with Towne winning the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Paramount first released Chinatown on DVD in 1999. There's been a lot of digital water under the bridge since then, and this re-release is being called the Special Collector's Edition.
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider) is a private investigator in Los Angeles, circa 1937. Gittes specializes in domestic cases, catching errant spouses in compromising situations. He's a little surprised when Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd, Wild at Heart) shows up at his office asking Gittes to follow her husband. Hollis Mulwray is Chief Engineer of the Water and Power Commission, and his refusal to build a dam that could help ease the city's water concerns in this time of drought has made him well-despised.
Gittes takes the case, and sure enough, finds and photographs Mulwray in the company of a pretty young woman. The story breaks, Mulwray's picture is splashed all over the news, and Gittes becomes a minor celebrity thanks to his role in uncovering the scandal.
But then Gittes gets another visitor, a second woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, Network). She didn't hire Gittes to dig up dirt on her husband, and she's planning to drag him through the courts to prove it.
Jake sets out to find who set him up, and why. First he discovers that every night, thousands of gallons of water are being dumped -- water sorely needed by the farmers in the parched L.A. valley. Then Hollis Mulwray turns up dead.
Now It seems everyone has a story, and no one is playing straight -- not Mulwray's replacement at the Water and Power Commission, not Mrs. Mulwray, and not the wealthy and decadent Noah Cross (John Huston, The Cardinal), the powerful city elder who knows that what cannot be taken outright can just be bought.
From the opening art deco credits running under Jerry Goldsmith's lush and haunting score, Chinatown sets you up for something special and doesn't let you down.
The first time I saw Chinatown was in a film class, where it was shown as an example of a perfectly structured script, one in which every scene was important and had to be watched through, or you'd miss the whole movie.
Its structural purity makes Chinatown an excellent work of craftsmanship. What makes Chinatown a great movie is its artistry, its balance of cynicism and heart, its multidimensional characters, its way of telling its story and affecting us without laying everything out. It's a film about memory and loss, a film named after a place we barely see, but which we come to realize is a metaphor (as Towne explains in an interview) of the futility of good intentions.
The film flawlessly presents an intricate pair of concurrent, slightly convoluted, dove-tailing mysteries. But the real story here is about the characters, about the necessary damage inflicted by progress, about failed redemption.
As Jake Gittes, Nicholson turns in one of his strongest performances. Nicholson and Towne were good friends and former roommates, and Towne used his knowledge and understanding of Nicholson to fashion the character of Gittes. Along with his work in The Last Detail, also written by Towne, I believe this is Nicholson's best work, honest and free of artifice.
Polanski fought to cast Dunaway (Evans wanted Jane Fonda), and the director's instincts were on target. With her high cheekbones and carefully made-up face, she is the epitome of pre-WWII beauty. The neurotic energy that would make her later performances seem like self-parodies is focused here; she is vulnerable and inscrutable. Like Nicholson, this performance is a career-best. Costumer designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her in blacks, whites, and grays. Pay attention to what she's wearing. It offers clues about her character.
Watching Chinatown again after so many years, I was struck by just how little actual screen time John Huston has. He first appears at the one-hour mark, then at the two-hour mark, through to the end. And yet, he makes an indelible impression as the corrupt and corrupting Noah Cross, whose presence hangs over the film like a poisonous cloud.
Chinatown marked Polanski's return to Los Angeles for the first time after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. It was only the second -- and most likely, last -- film he directed in the United States. He fled the country a couple of years later to avoid imprisonment on statutory rape charges (an event that, ironically, took place at a home owned by Jack Nicholson).
We get an infinitely better image here than the 1999 release, far sharper and brighter. Audio is also cleaned up from the previous release. There's still a fairly useless 5.1 Surround track but also a very good and clear restored Mono track. We also get sixteen chapter stops, just like the first release.
The first release gave us 15 minutes worth of retrospective interviews featuring Polanski, Evans, and Towne. Here, we get around an hour of retrospective interviews with new ones from Polanski and Towne as well as Nicholson, all filmed separately, with clips from the film and photos taken during production. All the information from the first disc is covered here, as well as much more. It's particularly interesting to hear Towne talk about how he conceived of and developed the script. It's a shame they didn't get Dunaway, but all-in-all, it's a good overview of the production along with some great anecdotes. Both discs contain the same beat-up trailer.
Maybe it's my affection for the film. Maybe it's that I've seen some really great discs recently. In any event, there's something lacking here, something that makes this Special Collector's Edition just not that...special.
Let's start with the box art. The 1999 release gave us a scaled-down version of the original poster art, which I've always found to be beautiful and evocative, sans credits. It would have been nice if the new release had replicated the original poster with credits, but instead, we get the faces of Nicholson and Dunaway over a drop of water. It's all right, just a little drab, but it's certainly easy enough to distinguish from the earlier release. The backs of both boxes feature the same quote from Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion.
For the new release, the case touts "Four Featurettes": "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End!," "Chinatown: Style," "Acting Chinatown," and "Chinatown: The Classic."
However, when you pop in the disc, come to the static, silent menu (no snippets of dialogue, no Goldsmith score, just the same picture as the cover art), and click on Special Features, you find only three "Featurettes": "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" (without the exclamation point), "Chinatown: Filming," and "Chinatown: The Legacy." Would it really have been that difficult to have checked the box copy against what's actually on the disc?
And frankly, calling these "Featurettes" is a bit of a stretch. I'm sure it was no small task to score interviews with Nicholson, Polanski, and Towne (the Evans interview is the same one used in the 1999 release), but these "Featurettes" are just edited versions of those interviews:
* "Beginning and the End" is the part of the interview where they talked about the origins of the script and generally about the production;
* "Filming" is the part of the interview where they talked about specifics of the shoot, and Polanski and Nicholson reminisce about working with Faye Dunaway;
* "Legacy" is the part of the interview where they talked about critical reception and how the film has grown in stature over time.
They could have just run the whole thing as a single feature broken into chapters.
None of this is fatal -- the interviews themselves are terrific -- but for a major studio re-release of a classic, I think the presentation is a bit sloppy.
As a side note, I truly believe there is, somewhere, film or video footage of Faye Dunaway waxing about her experience on this movie. Someday, someone will unearth it, and then we'll have the makings of a really special Special Collector's Edition.
Gripes aside, we get an excellent transfer, some really good interviews, Jack, and a great price: $14.99 MSRP, which means you'll probably be able to pick it up for around 10 bucks.
Chinatown is a great movie, and while calling this a Special Collector's Edition might be a stretch, it's well worth adding to your collection, with the improved transfer and low price making it an easy double-dip.
Forget it, Jake, it's DVD Verdict.
You're not guilty here.
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" (22:00)
* "Chinatown: Filming" (25:00)
* "Chinatown: The Legacy" (9:00)
* Jack Nicholson Site
* Faye Dunaway Site
* Robert Towne Article