Chinatown
R1 - America - Paramount Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak and Stevie McCleary (5th November 2007).
The Film

Before he had to run away for some time on account of being a very bad boy, Roman Polanski directed "Chinatown" in 1974. With buckets of Film Noir style, a tight script, and a rocking cast it has become quite beloved by many.
Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is just going about his business of following people's cheating spouses when a dame walks into his office with an offer he just can't refuse. She says she is the wife of the head of the Water & Power board Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) and suspects him of cheating. Now, this is set in 1930's Los Angeles...at the time a town verging on a desert wasteland. The head of Water & Power is not the type of man you'd want to get into hot water with...unless you want to cook in it. But good ol' reliable Jake takes the case and does indeed find evidence of Mulwray's infidelity. It's at this point that Jake meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Then things get dangerous...they get real dangerous.
In terms of talking about what this film does, I'd love to describe how a classic Noir story would go...but there's a problem already. See there was a statement by a reviewer that claimed 'this movie is nothing if not wholly original'. Frankly, that's a ridiculous statement. While not a judgment on the film's quality, it borrows from every great detective story of decades past. And while the script may feature no wasted effort, hitting every mark it aims for in terms of telling the story and weaving a thread of mystery through it, it still smacks of 'I've seen this before'. And I do mean that literally, as in from films made before this one, going back to the greatness of "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). A good mystery is timeless, irrelevant to when it was made. But "Chinatown" suffers from predictability at every turn. Now if I were to describe the basic standard plot points of a classic crime story of days past then I would reveal every turn this film takes. I found myself very annoyed that every assumption I made about where the story was going turned out to be completely true. I had the majority of what I thought would be the main swerve figured out early...only it turned out to be how things actually went down. This was disappointing. It's such a strong script...just not as original in the ways that I personally would have liked. But don't get me wrong: this is still one of the strongest films made in this genre, with a lot of the praise due to the writing.
The use of violence and sexuality is of particular note in this film. The violence is sharp and brutal. Whether it is a flick of a knife, a punch-up, or a verbal confrontation at a Barbers, it remains decidedly visceral at every turn. In regard to the sexuality, there is just a rift of tension and danger that permeates the whole piece when dealing with the concept of sex. It gets people into trouble, it causes their problems. It is difficult to describe but these two factors work together to create the strangest unease in a viewer. This is a weary world for the characters and it's one where they know they can't win. Danger and pain is the recipe du jour for them, and it's primarily due to their own devices. In particular the ending, and the statement it makes about our lives, is incredibly powerful.
Great work is done by all the cast, but then it's what we'd expect from this group. Nicholson is perfectly in his element as the loveable rogue detective, straight as an arrow but reluctant to admit it, who finds out he is not as hard-boiled as he thought he was. Dunaway brings her multi-layered performance to the role of the enigmatic widow and gives it her all, while the actor portraying her father (John Huston) is commanding in every scene he features in. He's also the recipient of the best line in the whole piece during the chilling final act...
Is "Chinatown" a classic? Most would agree. Is it as good as those people think? I'm not entirely sold on that one but I'm coming around. It's slow and deliberate pace may put off some of today's viewers. And its lack of mystery in its mystery is something that grates with me. At the very least I do know that if you were interested on a "Top movies to see in my lifetime before I die" list, this movie does deserve a spot reserved for it. It may be a place that haunts the memory of the main characters but it's a place that creates many good memories in those who watch it; "It's Chinatown."

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 this anamorphic transfer is a fine effort considering the film's age, the only problem is that it could be better as I've seen older films with even better transfers. For the moist part close-ups and mid-shots look sharp and detailed however I noticed a lot of wide-shots that appear a bit on the soft side and some background lacking a bit in detail. The film does feature some film grain and some blacks can be a bit noisy. I also spotted a few specks and dirt but generally the print is very clean. Colors are vibrant but the color palette is deliberately toned down and this transfer renders the look accurately, skin tones appeared a little orange at times as well. I could not spot any compression related problems and no edge-enhancement. Compared to the previously released DVD this appears to be a new transfer and is a step ahead of the older release, which is always a good thing.

Audio

Five audio options are included and they are in English Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as the original English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track that has been restored and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono tracks in French, Portuguese and Spanish. For the purposes of this review I chose to view the film with its 5.1 track, this track was created by up-mixing the original mono track, the result is a average effort that mostly still relies on front heavy sound. This appears to be the same 5.1 mix as seen on the previous DVD, while dialogue is clear, limited directional effects and score make up the majority of the surround activity but overall the mix still lacks suitable depth. Purists might like to stick with the film's original track which has been restored.
Optional subtitles are included in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.

Extras

First up we've got "Chinatown: The Beginning and the End" a retrospective featurette that runs for 19 minutes 30 seconds and features new interviews with producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne and actor Jack Nicholson. The clip takes a look at the genesis of the project and how Towne wanted to make a trilogy, it also explores the inspiration for the script and writing the main character with Jack in mind and the notion behind 'Chinatown' as a state of mind. Jack comments on his participation in the project and also looks at the involvement of Polanski who originally had reservations about coming back to Hollywood to make a picture but eventually agreed which started the process of reworking the script to make it shorter and to Polanski's specification as well as a look a the film's rather dark ending.

Following that is "Chinatown: Filming" a featurette that carries on form the previous and runs for 25 minutes 36 seconds and takes a look back at the production in Los Angeles and shooting on location of which they didn't have to look hard for considering Towne had done a lot of research and was specific about the locations in his script. They takes a look back at the look and style of the film was wasn't over-stylized to create a realistic recreation of the period and how Polanski wanted to evoke a Raymond Chandler feel to the film among other things including the cast and what they brought to the production such as the various arguments and disagreements that occurred on set, one such encounter was rather humorous where Polanski wanted to set up a complicated shot which took a while to light but Jack was anxious to call it a wrap because of an important Lakers game being on. The antics of Dunaway are also comment on.

The third and final featurette is "Chinatown: The Legacy" which runs for 9 minutes 40 seconds and the interviews remember the scoring of the film and the preview screening, release and critical reaction to the film which helped garner the film 11 Oscar nominations but only won one, regardless the film, went on to be a success and holds it's place among the top films made.

Rounding out the extras is the film's original theatrical trailer which runs for 3 minutes 21 seconds.

Overall

The Film: A- Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: B Overall: B

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.