Chinatown Review

The question of what a particular movie is about tends to pop up frequently when people are looking for recommendations on what to watch. It's understandable that people like to know what they're getting into before investing a couple of hours of their time, but such concerns often prove difficult to answer. Great films are frequently much more than their plots and trying to explain what one is "about" can be frustrating. Chinatown poses just such a problem. The 1974 film is beloved, timeless, and became a bona fide classic almost instantly upon its release. But what's it about? Well, it’s about water. It’s about J.J. “Jake” Gittes (two syllables). It’s about greed, deceit, corruption, and lurid secrets deeply buried. It’s about Los Angeles in the 1930s and in the 1970s. It’s about letting your guard down when you know you probably shouldn’t. It’s about not being able to undo the past. It’s about cars and hats and private detectives that now only exist in movies. It’s about arguably the most impressive original screenplay ever put on film. It’s about scandal and a director who chose exile from Hollywood over jail. And, of course, it’s about “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Trying to relay the plot of Robert Towne’s brilliant, Oscar-winning script for Chinatown would, essentially, require repeating everything that happens in the film all the way to the final shot(s). The viewer really doesn’t entirely comprehend where anything is going until it gets there, if at all. What we can make out is that Jack Nicholson puts on a nice suit and hat as private detective, and former cop, J.J. Gittes. Things appear to be going well enough for Gittes. He’s toiling away finding dirt on the spouses of his jealous clients. Then a Mrs. Mulwray walks in and says she suspects her husband of cheating. Turns out her husband is involved in a water development program with the city. Also turns out that Mrs. Mulwray isn’t Mrs. Mulwray at all. The real Mrs. Mulwray (played by the real Faye Dunaway) makes a visit to Gittes in an attempt to straighten things out. But, as happens throughout the picture, complications ensue. A corruption mystery begets a murder mystery which then begets a brief romance and, ultimately, leads to shocking revelations and the film’s final, famously downbeat line.

With 33 ½ years now since the film’s release, Chinatown has taken its place as that rarest of movies - an unassailable classic. Aside from a stray claim of confusion or a personal attack against director Roman Polanski, hardly anyone dares disparage the film. (Regardless of how great a film actually is, and this one is certainly about as good as anything in its decade or genre, someone is usually waiting, ink-filled axe in hand, to tear it down.) Now, decades after the famously fertile period in American filmmaking during which it was made, Chinatown remains an undeniably impressive achievement, tarnished, if at all, only by the critical and commercial failure of its sequel, The Two Jakes, in 1990. When thinking about why the film enjoys such a bedrock reputation, I came up with a few possible explanations.

First and foremost, it’s perfect for people who like movies (i.e. the vast majority of people who write about them). Chinatown both demands and rewards repeat viewings, opening the audience’s eyes to new things possibly missed while they were trying to figure out what the heck was going on the first time and establishing a much richer viewing experience in the process. The film never disappoints regardless of how many times you’ve seen it (assuming that’s in single or double digits). It’s also remarkably timeless. The 1930s setting lends itself to classic styles introduced mainly through clothes and automobiles that never age. Twenty-three years later, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of L.A. Confidential used this lesson to great effect by perfectly establishing 1950s cool and nailing the timeless nostalgia quality often tried for, but never landed after Polanski’s neo-noir. Aside from a city, what both of those films have in common is an incredibly strong and twisty narrative and a pronounced reverence for films noir of the 1940s.

While watching Nicholson tear into the role of Gittes, the actor that first comes to mind is Humphrey Bogart, whose Sam Spade in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is the cinematic forefather of Gittes. The debt owed to Huston’s film is sizeable and implicitly acknowledged by the director’s acting turn here as the powerful and devilish Noah Cross. If Spade’s bird is the stuff dreams are made of, then the water, water, nowhere scam Gittes uncovers must be closer to the stuff deaths are made of. Released in 1941, The Maltese Falcon is often regarded as the first classic film noir and Chinatown may be the first textbook entry in the much broader neo-noir category. Purists often regard film noir not as a genre, but as a movement or style that ended with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958. Others disagree and see noir as a category applicable to films of any era. Those persons might include Chinatown as film noir since it has many of the traditional elements - confused, morally ambiguous protagonist, even more morally ambiguous femme fatale, a sense of impending dread, and an unhappy ending.If you subscribe to the idea of noir as a fleeting movement or style, as I do, then Chinatown is necessarily left to its own devices. So without membership in the club it clearly owes a debt to, where does the film fall? Neo-noir, apparently. Neo-noir is an offshoot of film noir, post-Touch of Evil, but keeping with the same set of principles established by those films of the ’40s and ’50s. Chinatown is arguably the first true example of neo-noir, though others such as John Boorman’s Point Blank or some of Samuel Fuller’s work like The Naked Kiss, embody a lot of the same themes found in earlier films noir and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye from a year earlier contains many of those same ingredients while maintaing Altman's signature genre deconstruction. Regardless, Chinatown is obviously in the same vein as film noir, whether it’s an homage and thus more suited to the neo-noir tag or if it’s a true noir. Personally, I have a problem placing the noir label on anything filmed in colour, but Chinatown is perhaps the perfect bridge between the classic film noir period and the resurgence of the noir effect in American film. Films like Arthur Penn's Night Moves and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, just to name two of the more successful entries, share all the hallmarks of the quintessential classic noir films and were given a certain degree of legitimacy by the success of Chinatown.

Creatively, much of that success hinges on Jack Nicholson's perfectly calibrated performance as Gittes. His presence is absolutely vital to the film’s believability. Despite the actor's humble physical stature, he's flawless and irreplaceable in the role, which was actually written specifically for him by his ex-roommate Towne. Nicholson’s Gittes glides through everything in perfect, immaculately tailored stride. Where other private eyes of 1970s cinema, namely Elliott Gould as Altman’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye and Gene Hackman in Night Moves from 1975, spun a distinctly “of the era” approach to their characters, Nicholson opted for a more classic and enduring portrait of his hardluck hero. He’s not Spade. He’s not Marlowe. He’s different, a more internal character than his pre-cursors and one who’s seemingly not in perpetually dire straits. There's the quick temper and the wounded past, but the angst isn’t there. Gittes is not a downtrodden figure. He has a couple of associates working under him, a secretary, even an intercom to communicate with her.Business seems to be pretty good also, but the one glaring absence is any sort of significant other. That’s where Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray comes in. The romance between detective and client is mostly illustrated with looks and innuendo until the night they spend together. Evelyn has the face of a porcelain doll and the past of a moonlit street walker. Gittes must know everything isn’t on the up and up with her. He quickly discovers she’s the daughter of the powerful Noah Cross, former partner to Evelyn’s dead husband, and even accuses her of murdering the waterlogged Mr. Mulwray. But there’s that face, with those perfectly sculpted cheekbones. If she’s not the one, she may be the one for a night or two at least. Gittes wants Evelyn to be innocent, but he wants to solve this puzzle he’s gotten himself into more.

That puzzle, created by Robert Towne in one of the most highly lauded screenplays in Hollywood history, is a doozy. The auteur theory depends on a film’s director as being the true author of the movie, but who’s the “author” here? Polanski’s often demonstrated skill in exploring the psychological depths of human beings, often with a decidedly twisted brand of humour, takes a back seat to Towne’s sprawling miracle of a script. In comparison to both Polanski’s more personal and well-known films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, or, even, The Tenant, Chinatown looks a bit like a different creature altogether. The tweaks to Towne's original script, most notably Polanski's insistence on the more pessimistic ending used in the film that even Towne now concedes was the right choice, are fairly well-documented, but it's hard to deny that this is a film in the voice of its great screenplay more than that of its director.

The Disc

You know those people who are constantly begging for just a great presentation of a film at an affordable price? Paramount’s R1 Special Collector’s Edition of Chinatown is for those people. Retailing for the low, low price of under $15, this most recent release is a significant improvement over the previous edition. Back in 1999, Paramount put out a passable edition of the film in R1, followed by an exact duplicate a year later in R2. Then, last year, the studio re-released the same disc with new art that deprived the cover of its beautiful poster artwork. This new R1 release unfortunately utilises that same revised cover, now with a thick gold border similar to what Paramount gave R2 consumers a few years ago. I’d prefer the original poster art, but $15 for a nearly-flawless transfer would be enticing even if the cover art consisted of Jake Gittes’ nose stitches (a possible improvement, actually).

The video quality is stunning and the best I can imagine the film looking until high definition. It’s a much-improved result over the previous DVD image quality and very cleanly rendered. There’s no print damage or defects of any kind. Detail is sharp and strong. Colours are mostly warm as befitting the film’s natural Southern California palette, but look essentially perfect. The light grain seems entirely appropriate. If I wanted to be ridiculously strict, I might acknowledge that high definition would probably lead to even sharper images, but this is close to the pinnacle of how a consumer would hope for a film from this decade to appear. It’s presented as enhanced for widescreen televisions, in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Audio is similarly without complaint. Original Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is included, as is the same DD 5.1 stereo surround track from the previous release. Both are just fine. The mono is restored and free from any noticeable defects. The stereo mix is obviously a little more pronounced and sounds impressively natural. Gunshots are startling among all channels and other noises, particularly an instance of rushing water, are spread out nicely. There’s nothing that will tax your sound system, but both English audio tracks are very good. There are also French, Spanish and Portuguese dubs, all of which are subtitled in Paramount’s preferred golden yellow colour, as are the regular English language tracks. The film can be watched with audio from any of the four language options, as well as with subtitles from any of the languages (meaning the viewer can theoretically listen to the French dub while using Spanish subtitles if desired, or any other combination). The featurettes are subtitled as well, though not dubbed.

The extras are limited to three segments of a documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau. They can only be played separately and feature new interviews with Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne, as well as what appears to be a less recent Robert Evans contribution. The first is entitled “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End” and runs just under twenty minutes. I found it to be the most informative of the three by far, detailing Towne’s influences and the process his evolving script took before the cameras stopped rolling. This section basically gives a nice thumbnail sketch of how the film got made. It’s followed by “Chinatown: Filming” which, naturally, focuses on the production element and runs twenty-five minutes. Lastly, “Chinatown: Legacy” is a nearly ten-minute look at the enduring appeal of the movie. A theatrical trailer (3:20) is also included.These three featurettes have DVD supplement producer Bouzereau’s non-threatening fingerprints all over them and are harmless enough. I do wish his editor would eliminate the attention deficit disorder-friendly constant cutting and just show the interview subjects without incessant need for film clips and photographs. Nevertheless, the supplements are only disappointing if you look at what might have been and, given Paramount's more budget-minded approach to releasing their classics, that's not likely in the cards. It should be mentioned, also, that the back of the DVD case wrongly lists four featurettes, with varying titles from the three actually here. In addition, the retrospective interviews from the previous release are conspicuously absent, as is the participation of Faye Dunaway (though her apparent shyness is likely explained in the second featurette and presumably a result of animosity towards Polanski).


Chinatown is one of the greatest films of all time. Anyone with interest in film noir or American movies of the 1970s should probably consider this a must-have. At such an affordable price, this is the definitive release of the movie thus far and a highly affordable disc to hang onto even if a better edition is released in the future.

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