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CHINATOWN
Centennial Collection

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston
Director: Roman Polanski
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: October 6, 2009

“Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown.”

Film ****

In a way, I feel as though I should have my status as a true film lover questioned. Of all the films I’ve put off watching for no explanation whatsoever, I seriously regret putting off Chinatown the most. There was no real reason why I put it off for so long, other than I simply kept forgetting to remind myself to rent it or even buy it. And after seeing L.A. Confidential countless times, it makes no sense to not want to experience the very film that inspired it as well as so many others.

Well, now I can admit to everyone that I have seen Chinatown, and YES, it is very much the cinematic masterpiece that audiences and critics alike have lauded since it first came out in 1974. It’s the film that redefined the film noir genre, and has even become the very film most people associate with film noir in general. And it is considered by many to be director Roman Polanski’s quintessential masterpiece, and you can count me amongst those very people.

And what a bold and revolutionary film it is indeed. It’s a film that was ahead of its time in a most unusual way. It basically took a movie environment that was mostly familiar to films of the 1930s and 40s. But, to my knowledge, the setting of 1930s Los Angeles had seldom been seen in color. And being that this was made in the 70s, the advances in what could be shown on screen allowed the film noir story to be much darker than audiences were used to.

By now, everyone is familiar with the three ingredients that make up the all around brilliance of Chinatown. The first is Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which is one of the most complex and gripping mystery tales ever penned. The second is the outstanding directing from Roman Polanski, whose impeccable vision of 1930s L.A. has yet to be surpassed. And lastly, you have the great Jack Nicholson in the role that catapulted him to superstardom, and what an impression Jack made with this one.

As far as plot description goes, I’m going to keep it to a minimum simply because there are so many plot developments that it’s best to leave them for you to experience for yourself. And secondly, Towne’s screenplay is so brilliantly complex that it would take me forever to put the overall plot into words. Too much plot isn’t always a good thing, but then again it was this movie that paved the way for complex plotting.

J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is a dedicated L.A. private eye. His casework usually concerns matrimonial fare. He gets a job offer from a woman named Evelyn Mulwray to snoop on her husband, the L.A. Water Commissioner, who she suspects of infidelity. He does catch the husband in the act of cheating, with the pictures to prove it. Trouble is, the woman who hired him turned out to be an impersonator, a fact Gittes realizes when the real Ms. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) storms into his office and pleads him to stop the case at once.

So now Gittes wants to figure out why he was played for a fool. Surprisingly enough, it leads to the discovery of Mr. Mulwray’s dead body, as a result from drowning. And the trail leads all the way to none other than Evelyn’s father, millionaire businessman Noah Cross (John Huston). Before long, Gittes soon uncovers a conspiracy tied in directly to L.A.’s water supply.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Chinatown is quite simply a treasure to behold. One look at any scene in this film and it’s hard to believe that it was actually made in 1974. The classy look and style to the picture, along with Richard Sylbert’s production design, W. Stewart Campbell’s art direction, John A. Alonzo’s cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s music score all evoke a film noir you’d come across in the 1930s or 40s.

I mentioned earlier that Jack Nicholson’s leaves quite an impression in his role as J.J. Gittes. Jack had done a great deal of supporting work prior to this in films such as Easy Rider and Carnal Knowledge, and even had a leading role in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces, but it was this film and this role that helped launch a legendary career. If Jack had passed on this film, I have a feeling we wouldn’t have seen him in the many great roles that followed.

Chinatown is a film that will forever be remembered in two respects; one of the truly great films of the 1970s, and as one of the greatest entries in the film noir genre, if not THE greatest. No matter how you see it, Roman Polanski’s masterpiece will always be in the same league with the two other great film noir classics, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. I can’t think of any greater league of films to be associated with.

BONUS: Roman Polanski himself has a small role in the film as the thug with the knife who puts Jack’s nose to the ultimate test.

Video ****

I’m not sure if the picture had some remastering done, or if my PS3 (which is said to make most standard DVDs look a bit more pristine) did the trick. But whichever the case, Paramount has made Chinatown look more spectacular than ever. 1930s Los Angeles is brought to amazing, vivid life. John Alonzo’s cinematography looks even more breathtaking, and all of the various set pieces, especially the desert based sequences, appear in the most marvelous form imaginable. Colors are definitely a strong element, as well. It’s one of the best presentations I’ve seen of any 70s movie on DVD, and what better film to get such grand treatment than this one?

Audio ***

From what I gather, no major differences between this and the previous DVD release. The 5.1 mix makes for a most impressive sound performance as well. The primary standout is Jerry Goldsmith’s noir-esque score to the film, which sounds nothing short of fantastic. Dialogue delivery is strong and clear, and several set pieces even mange to get some nice surround sound treatment.

Features ****

This is the first Centennial Collection release from Paramount that I’ve gotten around to. Here’s the bottom line; if you own any previous DVD release, sell it and upgrade to this fantastic 2-Disc release, which includes some remarkable new bonuses. Disc One includes a terrific commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne and director David Fincher, making his first guest appearance on a film commentary. It’s a rivetingly detailed listen, as the two go over many various details about the film. While listening to them speak, I kept thinking how much I would love to see Fincher do a 30s noir film. I’d bet it would be right on par with this masterpiece…you heard it here first!

On Disc Two, we have two brand new behind the scenes documentaries. The first one is titled “Water and Power”, which can be viewed as a whole or in its three separate parts; “The Aqueduct”, “The Aftermath” and “The River and Beyond”. Combined, the documentary runs nearly 80 minutes and features some extraordinary details that go way beyond the film, focusing mostly on William Mulholland, the man who found himself in a similar situation involving water control around the 1920s. It features reflections from Robert Towne, as well as various family members and historians. The second new documentary is titled “Chinatown: An Appreciation”, which runs nearly a half hour and features interviews with various filmmakers, most notably Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce, on how Polanski’s precise direction served as an inspiration for their work. Also featured are all the extras from the previous DVD release, including the featurettes “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End”, “Chinatown: The Filming” and “Chinatown: The Legacy”. Also featured is the Theatrical Trailer and a neat little insert booklet, a true rarity for DVDs not released by Criterion!

Summary:

Even though I should’ve caught up with this film much earlier than I did, Chinatown was every bit as riveting as I hoped it would be, and is high on my list of all time favorite films. And now thanks to Paramount’s wonderful Centennial Collection release, I was fortunate enough to experience this genre-defining classic in the best possible form. I can’t stress it any further, this is a must have DVD for all film buffs!

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