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Our reviews of Chinatown (published December 13th, 1999), Chinatown (Blu-ray) (published April 5th, 2012), and Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition (published November 6th, 2007) are also available.
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."—Walsh
Chinatown: Centennial Collection is the third time the film has hit the DVD format, combining the previous two packages into one set with additional material about Los Angeles's unique water and power supply. It's ironic timing to deliver a new two-disc set of a signature Roman Polanski film, in a year where the enigmatic director is being scrutinized for his past sins. No matter what your opinion on Polanski and his legal woes, Chinatown remains a masterpiece, one which established him as a great director.
Facts of the Case
Jack Nicholson (Batman) stars as private detective Jake Gittes, hired by a suspicious wife (Diane Ladd, Wild at Heart) to find out if her husband is cheating. He is a chief engineer working with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, an odd target to be sure. Things get stranger and stranger, when what seems simple turns into a labyrinth of crazy plot twists and power plays. Jake finds out the woman who hired him has lied about who she is, and the real wife (Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest) is none too happy to have her husband exposed. Now Jake is working to find out who really hired him and why.
Chinatown was a deeply personal project for Polanski, serving as a melancholy essay on Hollywood life, colored by events that transpired four years earlier when he lost Sharon Tate in the Manson murders. There's a palpable sadness permeating the film, and time has made that even more poignant considering Polanski could never return to Los Angeles to work. But what makes the film significant is that it represents everybody involved operating at the top of their game.
If it weren't in color—with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway acting on locations rather than sets—you wouldn't guess the film to be from the '70s. It's never played for camp and feels as if it could have been crafted in the 1940s. The film itself is an undeniable classic, one that feels so authentic to its noir roots. It's dark, bleak, and wonderful, rightfully singled out as the film that defined "neo-noir," and the watermark for every movie thereafter that tried to emulate its feel. Films like Body Heat had to stand being compared to Chinatown, and even the sequel The Two Jakes couldn't hold up next to the first. Like any great film, the legend of this one simply grows over time. It's as fun to watch now as it was almost four decades ago, with Nicholson and Dunaway at the top of their game long before slipping into self-parody.
The DVD treatment is outstanding, but that's nothing new with Chinatown. The transfer remains similar to the Collector's Edition, and that is a good thing. Colors are pristine, rendered in a way that looks as close to high definition quality as you can expect. The image is sharp with an incredible level of detail. Sound options include a manufactured surround sound and a remastered mono mix. It's a stellar treatment and luckily the supplements are equally impressive.
On Disc One, we get a wonderful new commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne and director David Fincher (Fight Club), sharing an intelligent discussion about the movie and its merits. This feature was not included in previous editions, and is a fine addition to the set. Disc Two contains five featurettes. First up is "Water & Power," a brand new documentary about the power system and water supply for Los Angeles built around aqueducts and a man-made river system. It's divided up in to three sections, and is an interesting look at the true history behind the fiction guided by the scriptwriter Robert Towne. There is also "Chinatown: An Appreciation" which has great directors from today talking about their impressions of the film and memories of seeing it for the first time. The next three featurettes are ported over from the Collector's Edition. ÒChinatown: The Beginning and the EndÓ contains all the making of lore you could want, including interviews with Polanski, Robert Evans, Robert Towne, and Jack Nicholson. ÒChinatown: FilmingÓ features Polanski and Nicholson going in-depth about specific topics such as cinematography, make-up, and on-set complications. In ÒChinatown: The LegacyÓ, Polanski is given a chance to discuss his passion for the project, and how he was the only one who believed in it. Robert Evans, Robert Towne, and Jack Nicholson support this claim, stating they were never convinced the movie had the ability to succeed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When you boil down this new release, you really only have the addition of a commentary and a documentary, both showcasing Robert Towne's scriptwriter's take on the project. Certainly he's an interesting fellow with a lot to say, but wouldn't you rather hear from the director or the actors? Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway are the trio I want to hear on a commentary. We don't get that, and I'm afraid I can't justify an upgrade for anybody who owns the Collector's Edition. Is this the best set available? Absolutely. Is it essential? Only if you have held off buying the film before.
Chinatown: Centennial Collection is the edition to own if you want everything you can possibly get on the film—analyzed, supplemented, and looks as good as ever on DVD. Chinatown remains a remarkable piece of noir made three decades after the genre seemed to have run its course. A handsome flick everyone should own.
Forget about it, it's Chinatown. Not guilty!
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