Our reviews of Chinatown (Blu-ray) (published April 5th, 2012), Chinatown: Centennial Collection (published October 15th, 2009), and Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition (published November 6th, 2007) are also available.
Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
A classic film noir about sprawling pre-war Los Angeles, corruption, scandal, greed and murder, Chinatown brilliantly captures the moral ambiguity of a time and place and one cynic's struggle to protect an innocent from evil.
Life rarely unfolds neatly, people generally do not say what they mean, or do what they say, and a happy ending is often elusive. These universal truths are not often found in the average Hollywood script, as they make for messy stories with downbeat endings. However, when a scriptwriter such as Robert Towne (Mission Impossible, Frantic (uncredited), The Parallax View (uncredited)) takes them and melds them into a multi-layered film-noir script, what emerges is a story that feels impeccably authentic and keeps you glued to the screen. Every character has their own story and motivations, but no one (with one exception) is entirely worthy of praise or condemnation. Thankfully, the characters and story evoke the attitudes and concerns of that period, avoiding the more popular route of making the past fit into the moral straightjacket of the present. (Hello, Titanic) Only the abrupt ending, with too many questions left dangling, detracts from the otherwise masterful writing.
Speaking of writing…
With a dose of irony and shot of alcohol, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) breaks the bad marital news to Curly (Burt Young) with the usual explicit photographs. No sooner has he ushered his client out but he is hired by Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband, as she suspects him of cheating. "No. Really?" deadpans Jake. Jake tries, but not too hard, to persuade her not to hire him, but readily acquiesces and is soon on the job.
Her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. As Jake learns when he drops in on a City Council meeting, there is a brewing controversy over the water supply of the city, which pits local farmers against developers, with Mulwray publicly opposing a proposed dam project that has inflamed the tensions. He follows Mulwray around, and it is clear that Hollis is very concerned about something, but exactly what Jake can't figure.
When his operative spots Mulwray with a pretty little blond, Jake thinks he's found the answer and takes the pictures to prove it. The shock is severe when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up with an attorney and a lawsuit. Jake is now very interested in discovering who set him up (and why), but gets nowhere fast when he discovers a murdered Hollis Mulwray, except to gain Evelyn Mulwray as a client. He chats up his former colleagues Det. Loach (Richard Bakalyan) and Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez, remember him from the original Star Trek episode "Shore Leave?"), who head the investigation, but without result. Jake keeps digging, and the common thread keeps coming up water, especially when nosing around a reservoir nets Jake an encounter with a knife-wielding thug (Director Roman Polanski!) and a busted nose.
Returning to the Water and Power Department, Jake noses around and discovers that Noah Cross, a powerful and wealthy businessman, used to be a partner with Hollis Mulwray and is Evelyn Mulwray's father. A little threatening chat with the former Deputy (now Chief) Engineer, Yelburton (John Hillerman, as seen on "Magnum, P.I." and in Blazing Saddles), yields some further fruitful crumbs of clues. Jake still is not clear on what is going on, so he figures a visit to Noah Cross is in order to size up the new 800 pound gorilla that's suddenly come on the scene. Noah Cross (John Huston) is powerful, wealthy, and crafty beyond belief. Dangling a fat wad of money in front of Jake Gittes, Noah Cross is plainly attempting to bribe Jake into doing Cross' bidding, whether that is in Evelyn Mulwray's interest or not.
Following the money trail of the water, Jake discovers a sudden surge in questionable land transactions and when he investigates in person, some cranky farmers (who mysterious people have tried to run off their land) and Jake have a little misunderstanding. Bruised and car-less, Jake is rescued by a providential call to Evelyn Mulwray, who collects her PI and drives back to L.A. as he fills her in on the details of his efforts. Jack and Evelyn have grown quite close, but still she cannot trust him with all of her secrets. Ever the suspicious investigator, Jake tails a very nervous Evelyn to a rendezvous with her butler (James Hong) and Hollis' erstwhile girlfriend. Evelyn tries to explain, but Jake doesn't believe he's getting the whole truth, yet again.
All the loose ends slowly begin to come together when Jake makes ominous discoveries right in Evelyn's backyard and Evelyn is forced to reveal her darkest secrets. All the major players are drawn to a final, and tragic conclusion in the heart of moral ambiguity in Los Angeles—Chinatown.
J.J. (Jake) Gittes was a role specifically written with Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets, The Two Jakes, The Shining) in mind, from his use of language to his mannerisms, and it shows. He wears Jake Gittes like a glove, keeping a nearly unflappable exterior while giving us glimpses of the conflicted moral being that lurks within. Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest, Albino Alligator, The Thomas Crown Affair (both versions)) is equally superb, making us wonder about her motivations even as we sympathize with her plight when her world is torn asunder by events.
John Huston, perhaps best known as a director (Prizzi's Honor, The African Queen, Key Largo), gives us a mesmerizing, compelling portrait of a thoroughly evil man, at the same time charming and repellent, whose soul is so blind and corrupted that he feels no need for restraint or conscience. Once you learn about Noah Cross and what he has done, you can begin to appreciate the irony of the choice of Roman Polanski to direct, given his subsequent legal troubles.
The video is a decent anamorphic transfer for a movie of its age. It's not going to knock your socks off, but this is probably the best Chinatown has looked for most of you (though I wager the letterboxed laserdisc is close). Though the picture is generally clear and very nearly free of dirt and defects, it is also lacking in crisp detail and remains soft throughout the entire movie. However, this is not as distracting as it might seem, because in other respects this is an excellent transfer. Video noise is exceedingly minimal, and I did not observe any edge enhancement or moiré patterns. The palette is heavy on earth and neutral tones, so between that and the age of the film, you can understand that color saturation is not going to be a selling point for the disc. Flesh tones are good, with the occasional tendency to go a bit on the orange or the red side.
The original audio source for Chinatown is mono, so somewhere along the way Paramount decided to make a new 5.1 remix. While I appreciate the effort, I think the money was not put to good use (it should have gone toward greater extra content!). The sound is entirely centered; if there were channel effects I must have missed them. Neither the high nor the low frequencies are particularly noticeable, so give your LFE channel the night off. The dialogue is clear and understandable. Remember, it's a mono remix, so don't expect too much.
Extra content is pretty scarce for a classic movie title, but remember, this is Paramount. The main menus are movie themed, with simple animation effects and music. Aside from the theatrical trailer, the only other extra is a nearly fifteen minute featurette of interviews with director Roman Polanski, writer Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans. There are a few interesting tidbits, but with such a limited running time there's not room for more than superficial coverage. Paramount has at least seen the wisdom of using the Amaray keep case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The leading icon of the film-noir genre (at least as judged by the voters of the IMDb), Chinatown deserves the full-fledged special edition treatment. This could have been a real beauty, exploring the evolution and conventions of the genre (oh so briefly touched at in the interviews), giving us some historical background for pre-war Los Angeles, and in particular covering the actor's perspective. After all, Jack Nicholson went to the trouble of directing The Two Jakes, so clearly Chinatown must have been a uniquely positive experience for him.
I wish Paramount had seen the light and released this as its first true special edition disc and convinced us that they truly understand the potential of the DVD format and the desires of its consumers. Come on, Paramount, even Disney (A Bug's Life) and Fox (Alien) have managed to put out at least one superb special edition!
While we are on the subject, someone at Paramount needs to get with the program and stop being so freaking stingy with the chapter stops. Yet again, we have a two hour plus movie with only sixteen chapter stops, and to make it worse, they are presented one by one in the scene selection menu. Boo hiss!
A moody, intelligent film-noir classic, Chinatown is perfect for anyone looking for a mystery that oozes period and style and that dispenses with the usual happy Hollywood ending. Rental or purchase are both strongly recommended, though the high price ($30) and limited extra content is a caution for those considering a purchase.
Could I even consider convicting this fine cinematic experience? Fuggedaboutit, it's Chinatown! Paramount, on the other hand, ought to be ashamed for missing the opportunity to give this classic the respect it deserves, and is ordered to write a letter of abject apology to all DVD consumers.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.