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Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition DVD Review

Chinatown (1974) movie poster Chinatown

Theatrical Release: June 20, 1974 / Running Time: 130 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), Rance Howard (Irate Farmer), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Noble Willingham (Councilman)

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The title Chinatown conjures certain expectations. Knowing only it, you would probably anticipate a film set in a Chinese-flavored section of a city. Chinatown (1974) fails to live up to those expectations in all but its final scene, but as one of the most acclaimed works in cinema history, most viewers clearly have been able to forgive the misleading name and appreciate the original detective tale for what it is.

Set in Los Angeles of the mid-1930s, Chinatown is told from the perspective of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an accomplished private investigator.
When the wife of the chief engineer of the city's Water and Power department requests Gittes' services, he expects another unfaithful spouse case. Gittes reluctantly accepts and soon confirms the suspicions that Hollis Mulwray is indeed having an affair. Shortly after, Gittes learns that the woman who hired him was not the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), making his headline-making discovery unwarranted and him the subject of multiple lawsuits from the Mulwrays' attorneys.

The impostor wife client is the mere tip of the iceberg; one of the involved parties is found dead from what Gittes doesn't believe is an accident. The detective sets out to learn more about the inner-workings of L.A.'s water system, the subject of some scrutiny during an extensive drought. Meanwhile, he is also hired by the real Mrs. Mulwray. Hesitant to get involved with her but intrigued by his puzzling finds, Gittes pursues the murder mystery and the shrouded departmental doings believed to be behind it.

J.J. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) illustrates his career as a private investigator with an interested look and a pair of binoculars. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) dresses the part of grieving widow, but whether she feels it too is less certain.

Chinatown is an exquisitely crafted mystery in which the sordid connections uncovered are overshadowed by the utterly absorbing journey to them. Casually paced, understated, and with an air of intrigue that continuously strengthens, the film is deliberately old-fashioned in its ways. More than merely paying tribute to film noir from Hollywood's Golden Age, Chinatown fully immerses itself in the yesteryear style, which makes sense in light of the evocative period setting.

At the same time, there is evidence of the film's production period, smack in the middle of the gritty period now referred to as New Hollywood. Violence, profanity, a few flashes of nudity, and a steady flow of mature themes earn the drama an R rating. The content easily distinguishes the proceedings from the detective movies of the '30s and '40s that stand as inspiration.
The material provides a welcome bit of edge that lends weight to the story beyond what Production Code fare could supply with mere suggestion.

The movie delivers an appropriate blend of style and substance, consistently scoring abundant points both for compelling visuals and the gripping story. Appearing in every scene, Nicholson strikes one as a commanding presence and the force driving the film's success. Defensive of his profession and quick to crack a defiant joke in the face of a threat, ex-cop Jake Gittes is a rich character ripe for study. Even his wardrobe decisions, be they intentional ('30s-affirming pinstripe suits and hats) or not (that bulkily-bandaged nose), make an impression. Unraveling the film's riddles through his volatile eyes is an especially winning design. The viewer becomes Gittes' unseen partner, taking in clues and having to question the truth every line spoken (even those by Gittes).

If there's one area that doesn't hold the audience as tightly as the investigative work, it is the romance between Jake and Evelyn. It seems inevitable, it maintains the rest of the film's restrained tone, and it adds a dimension to the plot rather than detouring it. But it's tough to spot enough real passion to believe in the relationship. In the big picture, it doesn't make much difference. Chinatown is about as riveting and haunting as a film about a public utility conspiracy can be. The possibilities, we learn here, are surprisingly high.

Though he appears in just two scenes, John Houston's loathsome, powerful character Noah Cross was deemed one of cinema's all-time greatest villains by the American Film Institute in 2003. (Meanwhile, an attentive Jack Nicholson rocks out in his nose bandage.) Jake has a reputation for being a nosy fellow, sticking his nose in official police business like a kitty cat.

Beyond Nicholson, major credit must go to the principal filmmakers, who can cite this as one of the brightest achievements in careers that have been marked by a number of them. In between well-documented tragedy and controversy, Polish director Roman Polanski shows a keen eye and intelligence well beyond anything else I've encountered in his irregular filmography. As part of a creatively robust run as Paramount studio head and independent producer, Robert Evans was able to add this to his impressive list of New Hollywood hits and get a personal credit for it. Notably graduating from uncredited script doctor on films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, Robert Towne is single-handedly attributed with the very fine screenplay.

While Nicholson claims a large majority of the screentime, the benign Dunaway does well in a distant second.


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The dutiful supporting cast includes classic director John Huston (making impact in two scenes) and a number of recognizable faces (from "Magnum P.I."'s John Hillerman to Balls of Fury's James Hong), with memorable little appearances also supplied by Polanski and pre-Rocky Burt Young.

After receiving various critic group honors and cleaning up at the Golden Globes, Chinatown went into the Academy Awards with 11 nominations. It would only win one, for Towne's original screenplay, part of the downside of being released the same year as fellow 11-time nominee Paramount flick, The Godfather, Part II. Moving past its slight Oscar night performance, Chinatown has earned considerable recognition as one of the all-time great films. On both the 1998 and 2007 versions of the American Film Institute's 100 greatest movie lists, only The Godfather and Star Wars placed higher from the much-acclaimed canon of 1970s cinema. In other countdowns, AFI has also included the film's closing line, Jerry Goldsmith's trumpet-driven score, and Huston's heavy as milestones among cinema quotes, music, and villains.

A full eight years since Paramount first released it to DVD, Chinatown returns to the format as a Special Collector's Edition. As has often proven to be the case, the moniker entails less fanfare than it suggests. Similar distinction is simultaneously bestowed upon The Two Jakes, the 1990 sequel that brought back writer Towne, producer Evans, and star Nicholson (who doubled as director) with considerably less success.

Buy Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese;
Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps

VIDEO and AUDIO

The sleek and stylish Chinatown is given praiseworthy treatment in this fine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Heavy on yellows, browns, and tans, the color palette emphasizes the sunny yesteryear setting, while plentiful shadows underscore the film noir roots.
In all situations (including those noticeable anamorphic lens focus shifts), the film holds up with clean, sharp picture and a minimum of unwanted grain.

Five soundtracks are offered. Those wanting to view the film in its native English tongue can choose from a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and a two-channel Dolby Mono presentation more faithful to the film's original design. I'm usually not opposed to remixes, but I found this one a bit weak in comparison to the Mono track. Its lower dynamics can easily be adjusted but while expanding Goldsmith's score to the surrounds, the mix merely sounds stretched out. For instance, a courtroom scene's echo is reduced and other A/B comparisons found the 2.0 track packing a more powerful punch. The Oscar-nominated sound design impressively conveys some sense of depth even without multiple channels. Both tracks deliver an impressive range of content, enabling one to appreciate subtleties like dripping water faucets with great clarity.

Is the tiny nose bandage (barely visible here) a subtle homage to "Chinatown" or did screenwriter Robert Towne just scratch his bridge? You be the judge in three featurettes. At age 70, Jack Nicholson is still his typically animated self. U.S. fugitive and Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski is one of four darkly-clad men appearing in the DVD's three featurettes.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

For being regarded such a classic film and chosen for rerelease, Chinatown arrives in a DVD that's surprisingly anemic in terms of supplements.

The main supplement is a trio of featurettes, which could easily have been combined into a single 55-minute documentary. That's because they share a common design, consisting of interviews with four subjects (Jack Nicholson, director Roman Polanski, writer Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans), production photos, and the occasional movie clip.

"Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" (19:25) allows the participants to talk about the project's origins, how each came to be involved, and some revisions made to the script and the film's ending. "Chinatown: Filming" (25:30) focuses on the production, with somewhat entertaining stories shared regarding Polanski's separate on-set fights with Nicholson and Dunaway. It also includes discussion of the cast's characterizations and the film's visual style (resulting from a director of photography replacement). Finally, "Chinatown: The Legacy" (9:35) covers Jerry Goldsmith's rescoring done late in the game; the film's reception with critics, audiences, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and their own perceptions of how the movie has held up.

Closing out the modest selection of bonus features is the film's lengthy theatrical trailer (3:18).

Fans of the film are sure to be disappointed by what isn't here. The disc is void of the nigh-requisite audio commentaries and deleted scenes. It also loses the original DVD's 13-minute "Retrospective Interviews" with Evans, Polanski, and Towne. Though the new interviews render the 1990s sit-downs slightly superfluous, some of their comments are missed and could have easily been included.

There are no touches of flair found in the presentation. The motionless main menu merely borders the cover art with the listings and other menus are hardly more ornate. There is no insert inside the plain keepcase, which itself is a verbatim and nearly identical reproduction of the original DVD's 2006 repackaging.

Jake and Evelyn strike a classic film noir pose while driving at sunset. One is exactly as many Jakes as the world wanted to see.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Even if you're reluctant to consider Chinatown one of the greatest movies ever made, you've got to admit that this is one compelling, engaging, and well-realized mystery. Fans of film noir and generally captivating storytelling should undoubtedly check out this, for it earns both classifications. It may not cry for frequent rewatchings, but those who like to admire cinematic craft and wish to own the most widely-recognized classics should reserve a spot in their DVD collection for this movie and particularly this version.

Supplying only the trailer and less than an hour of featurettes, this Special Collector's Edition definitely doesn't provide the film with the definitive release it deserves. Still, the interviews with four key filmmakers make for solid supplements, picture/sound leave little to be desired, and the disc begins at bargain bin pricing. While the upgrade factor isn't overwhelming, this new disc still offers marked improvement and garners an easy recommendation for those not owning the film.

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Related Reviews:
The Cry Baby Killer and Little Shop of Horrors: Back-to-Back Jack Edition (1958-60)
Other Special Collector's Editions from Paramount: John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997) Night at the Roxbury (1998)
The Graduate: 40th Anniversary Edition (1967) Popeye (1980) Saturday Night Fever: 30th Anniversary Edition (1977)
The Hustler: Collector's Edition (1961) Back to School: The Extra-Curricular Edition (1986) The House Without a Christmas Tree (1972)
The Prestige (2006) Hot Fuzz (2007) Walt Disney Treasures: The Hardy Boys (1956) The Shaggy D.A. (1976)
New to DVD: The Best of The Colbert Report (2005-07) Ratatouille (2007) Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1 (1984-2007)

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Reviewed November 6, 2007.



Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1974 Paramount Pictures and 2007 Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.