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Chinatown Blu-ray Review

Chinatown (1974) movie poster Chinatown

Theatrical Release: June 20, 1974 / Running Time: 131 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Roman Polanski / Writer: Robert Towne

Cast: Jack Nicholson (J.J. Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton), Burt Young (Curly), Bruce Glover (Duffy), Joe Mantell (Lawrence Walsh), Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Dick Bakalyan (Loach), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), James Hong (Kahn), Cecil Elliott (Emma Dill), Beulah Quo (Maid), Federico Roberto (Cross' Butler), Allan Warnick (Clerk), John Rogers (Mr. Palmer), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Noble Willingham (Councilman), Rance Howard (Irate Farmer)

Buy Chinatown from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray DVD Centennial Collection DVD Special Collector's Edition DVD SCE DVD with Two Jakes

Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski were born four years and 3,500 miles apart.

Nicholson's acting career was slow to take off, with recognition eluding him for a decade after his film debut in Roger Corman's low-budget 1958 teen drama The Cry Baby Killer. As a regular player in Corman's cheap, fast productions, Nicholson worked with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as screenwriter and co-star on 1967's The Trip.
Those two would provide Nicholson an escape from obscurity and a star-making role in 1969's generation-defining Easy Rider, in which Nicholson replaced a disgruntled Rip Torn (for whom the part was written) and ended up with a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. By the following year, Nicholson was leading man in the acclaimed drama Five Easy Pieces and suddenly in demand with important filmmakers.

Paris-born, Poland-raised Polanski won attention right away, with his 1962 directorial debut Knife in the Water, an Oscar nominee for Foreign Language Film. Polanski made his next three films in the United Kingdom, before coming to America and helming the iconic horror film Rosemary's Baby, for which he received an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination. Personal tragedy of the unthinkable kind hit Polanski in 1969 when his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered 8 months into her pregnancy by members of the Manson Family.

By then, Nicholson and Polanski were already friends. This friendship would take them down some dark roads, with Nicholson's home being the site of the 1977 crime that continues to this day to tarnish Polanski's reputation and limit his freedoms. Years before that, the two would find creative success with their one and only professional collaboration, a film called Chinatown.

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) investigates the waterways of Los Angeles during a 1930s drought in the noir classic "Chinatown."

Chinatown is one of the most highly regarded films of the 1970s, a decade increasingly celebrated as one of the finest in American cinema. Many of those considered today's greatest living directors broke out in the '70s, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick.
Hailing from neither coast, Polanski isn't always grouped in that New Hollywood movement. But his films enjoyed comparable creative control and had a similarly arresting effect on critics and moviegoers alike.

Chinatown applies the 70s' edge to a genre quite popular in its depicted setting of 1937 Los Angeles: the film noir. Whereas the typically black and white hard-boiled detective mysteries of Hollywood's Golden Age had to adhere to production code decency standards, Polanski's movie would employ color, a widescreen aspect ratio, and content that previously had to be merely suggested: profanity, sex, violence, indiscretion, and sordid secrets.

Private investigator Jake Gittes (Nicholson) doesn't mince words or sugarcoat his beliefs. He passionately defends his work, primarily confirming and documenting extramarital affairs for suspicious spouses, as a living as honest as any. The film opens with a look at a typical one of Gittes' cases, this one proving to a man (Rocky's Burt Young) that his wife indeed has been "seeing" another man. Gittes' next job appears to demand more of the same, although with slightly more distinction in that the client is Evelyn Mulwray and the suspected adulterer is Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of LA's Department of Water and Power.

Though the case proceeds with the usual tailing and incriminating photographs, it takes an interesting turn when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up and reveals that the one who hired Gittes was an impostor. Further complicating matters is the fact that immediately after Mr. Mulwray's transgressions are published in the newspaper, the water magnate is found dead, drowned in one of the shallow riverbeds he oversees. The death is not as it looks, and Gittes is convinced it has something to do with the strange goings-on he witnesses at a number of the city's water sources, which officials claim are ordinary run-offs. The more Gittes looks into the alleged drought, the more he questions it and the more danger he finds himself in.

Gittes grows closer to the real Ms. Mulwray, whose motives remain in doubt among certain personal mysteries. This all leads to a finale set in Chinatown, the anything-goes district to which former cop Gittes was assigned in a tenure that continues to haunt him.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) serves as widow, suspect, client, and love interest. AFI-ranked villain Noah Cross (John Huston) talks to Jake (Jack Nicholson), whose nosy nose has been cut and thickly bandaged.

Chinatown's public works and homicide plots are sufficiently compelling, but one is impressed less by the story and more by the atmosphere. So much intrigue is generated just by following Jake Gittes around as he silently observes waterways. Each of his conversations carries meaning as well, even that seemingly incidental opening client meeting, since though we're certain to pick up the foul stench of conspiracy, the extent of it remains unclear. Everyone Gittes talks to, from his former colleague (Perry Lopez) heading the police investigation into Mr. Mulwray's death to Mrs. Mulwray to her powerful father (John Huston), warrants some suspicion.

The material calls for strong performances and the film gets them from everyone in the cast. As the shrewd Gittes, Nicholson makes for a magnetic protagonist and those around him provide the appropriate airs of ambiguity.

Chinatown was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, covering nearly all major and minor categories. Its only win came for Robert Towne's sharp and deserving original screenplay. As good as the film is, you can't really lament its ten losses, since three of them, including Best Picture, came at the hands of Francis Ford Coppola's extraordinary The Godfather Part II. Nicholson would be recognized as Best Actor the following year for his turn in Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, perhaps a stronger performance in a slightly weaker film.

As one of the crown jewels in Paramount's library, Chinatown has been released to DVD no fewer than four times (counting a 2-movie bundle with its disappointing Nicholson-directed 1990 sequel The Two Jakes), most recently in 2009 as part of the studio's short-lived Centennial Collection. This week, the film made the jump to high definition per the company's 2012 strategy of releasing one catalog title on Blu-ray per month. The BD receives no moniker, but in contents, it absolutely resembles the film's discontinued latest two-disc DVD edition.

Chinatown Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English), Dolby TrueHD Mono 2.0 (English),
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French, Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese; Movie-only: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: April 3, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $26.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Still available on DVD ($12.99 SRP, November 23, 1999) and Instant Video
Previously released as 2-Disc Centennial Collection DVD (2009), Special Collector's Edition DVD (2007), and The Jack Nicholson Collection with The Two Jakes (2007)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The handsome, stylish Chinatown looks pretty good on Blu-ray. The 2.35:1 transfer doubtlessly provides the film's strongest home video presentation to date. The picture boasts nice detail and strong colors. With that said, it's definitely not as stunning as some other works from the '70s have looked. Focus and sharpness appear to be lacking sometimes and scrutiny of the frame reveals the occasional speck or other minor shortcoming. One assumes many of the troubles date back to the original filming, but for such an esteemed work and one selected for preservation in just the third class of the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, one expects a little more from the Blu-ray.

The English soundtrack is encoded in Dolby TrueHD, and offered in 5.1 channels and a "restored" mono two-channel presentation. Though the latter was more impressive on DVD, I chose the default former and found it satisfactory, but it is a far from engulfing remix, remaining largely anchored to the front. The most prominent feature is Jerry Goldsmith's score, which is suitably dispersed. The dialogue definitely shows its age, but is for the most part plenty intelligible.

"Chinatown" screenwriter Robert Towne talks with activist Mike Prather in the tenuous at best feature-length documentary "Water & Power." Director Steven Soderbergh is among modern filmmakers expressing their admiration in "Chinatown: An Appreciation."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras begin with a screen-specific audio commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne and a fan named David Fincher. Fincher lavishes admiration on even the film's smallest details and prompts reflection by Towne. The complementary perspectives both emerge with reverence and insight, making this an enjoyable and significant listen.

On the video side, things begin with "Water & Power" (1:17:50), a three-part feature-length documentary produced for the film's 2009 Centennial Collection DVD. It opens with screenwriter Robert Towne visiting the Los Angeles Aqueduct and
then lives up to its title with an historical exploration of the titular public works department in Los Angeles with interviews of various historians, residents, and public officials. It briefly touches upon Chinatown as a reflection of the city's history, but this still amounts to the longest and furthest thematic leap from a film that I've seen. It is polished and well-produced, but more than a little dry (pun definitely intended).

Also from 2009 but more pertinent, "Chinatown: An Appreciation" (26:15) collects rave testimonials from four modern filmmakers who admire it: directors Steven Soderbergh and Boys Don't Cry's Kimberly Peirce, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard. Though you'd think Fincher would be here since he recorded the commentary, he's not, which is too bad because the piece could have used another notable perspective.

A short-haired Jack Nicholson gives one of his signature eyebrow raises in "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End." Jack Nicholson consults Roman Polanski during the filming of an orange grove scene in a photo from the retrospective featurettes. Though he has eluded U.S. authorities for over thirty years, director Roman Polanski was tracked down for some "Chinatown" reflection.

The next three featurettes, created for the 2007 Special Collector's Edition DVD, are presented in pillarboxed widescreen. Each reflects on the movie via then-new interviews with Jack Nicholson, director Roman Polanski, producer Robert Evans, and writer Robert Towne. They are seemingly not combined into a single 55-minute documentary only out of half-hour supplement legal considerations.

"Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" (19:28) focuses on the project's origins and revisions. "Chinatown: Filming" (25:35) shares a number of memorable production stories, touching upon Polanski's performance, character names, and, most interestingly, fights over Nicholson's Lakers game viewing and Dunaway's out-of-place hair.
"Chinatown: The Legacy" (9:37) wraps up covering the film's postproduction, reception, Oscar performance, and enduring significance

Finally, Chinatown's original theatrical trailer (3:20) is included in grainy HD.

One bonus feature from the movie's original DVD, 13 minutes of 1990s "Retrospective Interviews" with Evans, Polanski, and Towne, still does not resurface, presumably deemed superfluous by their more recent reflections here.

The menu is simply a wide reformatting of the poster-adapting cover art set to a 30-second loop of Jerry Goldsmith score. The disc resumes playback only as far as your player remains on. Beyond that, you'll have to rely on bookmarks on the movie alone.

The eco-friendly Blu-ray case is topped by a cardboard slipcover which tastefully applies holography to select portions of the artwork. Inside, one finds an insert for a Delta/Paramount vacation sweepstakes and a rare 8-page booklet, no doubt adapted from the Centennial Collection's liner notes. Three of the pages supply information on the film, covering a potential third installment realizing Towne's original trilogy plans, the LA filming locations, real-life inspirations, and awards.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." The final line of the film is also the most iconic.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

One of the great mystery suspense films, Chinatown makes its Blu-ray debut with a fairly fine feature presentation and all but one of its DVD bonus features intact. Although there is a lot of extra content here, it is a bit underwhelming aside from the commentary, with the Centennial Collection's epic water documentary failing to interest much and the other making-of featurettes being a bit limited in their design. Nonetheless, as the best release to date of a plenty potent cinematic landmark, this disc merits your attention.

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Reviewed April 6, 2012.



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