on July 27, 2002
About an hour into "Chinatown", Noah Cross (John Huston) says to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." Gittes, whose heard this rap before, just smiles. "Why is that funny?" asks Cross. "It's what the D.A. used to tell me about Chinatown." If any exchange defines "Chinatown" the movie then this is it. It's a film where the cliched metaphor of the onion is quite apt: the more layers you peel away, the more layers you find. And the less you're likely to understand. It begins life as a simple detective story, but eventually spins out of control into a web of intrigue (another cliched metaphor) that not only includes the murder of water commissioner Hollis Mulwray, but the entirety of 1930's Los Angeles.
Into this web is sprung Jake Gittes, a man who seems to be a typical film noir detective, but upon closer inspection is much more. Or, as we shall see, much less. I'd argue that Jake is an existential anti-hero, seemingly in control of every situation he enters in to, but ultimately just a pawn on an unfathomable chessboard. Minor notes in the movie confirm this hypothesis. A former client calls Jake on the phone, looking for his discretion. "Are you alone, Mr. Gittes?" she asks. "Isn't everybody?" Jake replies, clowning for his operatives, but saying more than he really intends to. It's not the last time he inadvertently comments on the futility of his existence. "That must really smart," says Yelburton, the deputy water commissioner, regarding Jake's newly bandaged nose. "Only when I breathe," he replies, pointing out the paradox. The bandaged nose also acts like a mask. Whereas Jake starts the movie as a handsome man in a slick suit (this is primetime Nicholson), he is slowly physically destroyed. The bandage is just the icing on the cake; it serves as a mask during the movie's middle third, hiding Jake's face and, at the same time, suppressing his identity. Identity, as an issue, is clouded by the fact that no one he meets can seem to get his name right. Cross, in what may be intentional, keeps calling him "Mr. Gitz" (correctly pronounced, 'Gittes' rhymes with 'kitties'). So not only is he a man with no face, he is a man with no name. Jake Gittes, as he gets deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding him, is ceasing to exist.
But that's not to say that he is a cipher of a character. How could he be when played by such a vibrant actor? Nicholson is subdued and cool here, in just the right amounts. He captures Jake's slow decent into near madness perfectly, while always allowing the man some sense of control. Nicholson is always watchable in whatever he does, but this may be his best performance because it asks him to tone down his manic energy, allowing it to bubble over in moments, while alluding to it as subtext in others.
Behind him, the acting is mostly superb. John Huston, in his few brief scenes, makes an indelible mark as the pure face of evil. Huston's deep, gravelly voice and imposing -- even at age 68 -- frame do a lot at conveying the man's power, while his twinkling eyes draw you to him, even though you know better. Although best known as a legendary director, Huston nearly steals the show here. Not faring as well is Faye Dunaway. She plays her femme fatale role with a bit too much iciness, and, in moments, melodrama. Although she holds her own, and portrays great anguish, in the film's climactic confessional scene, for the most part Dunaway isn't up to snuff.
Roman Polanski, who takes a brief but memorable role as the Man With Knife (that's how he's quite functionally billed), directs with his usual visual flare. Shots are composed as reflections in camera lenses or in a car's side mirror. The opening scene begins with a series of photographs detailing one wife's infidelity. Without saying anything, and without showing the audience the room around them, the scene is set perfectly. It's archetypal of how he shoots the rest of the film: with style and subtlety.
Maybe I put too much stock in what William Goldman has to say, but "Chinatown" has to be a frontrunner when tallying up the best screenplays of all time. A good screenplay will have two things going for it: a strong structure (of vital importance always), and interesting dialogue (useful in supporting the structure and in adding colour to the proceedings). Towne gets full marks on both counts. Structurally, it's a dream, a marvelous example of the micro turning into the macro as the web of intrigue broadens exponentially, while maintaining its power on the smaller scale all along. Add to this the crisp, precise dialogue, and you've got a screenplay that's as much fun to listen to as it is to follow. Jake is full of wisecracks and homespun wisdom. When asked about Mulwray's character, Yelburton denies ever hearing him talk about infidelity: "He never even kids about it." "Maybe he takes it very seriously," says Jake. When Cross asks if Lou Escobar, the investigating officer who's handling the Mulwray murder case, is an honest man, Jakes replies, "Far as it goes... of course he has to swim in the same water we all do." On its own this would be a great line, but in "Chinatown", where the water of L.A. plays a major role in the plot, its damn well genius.
"Chinatown" is much more than your average detective story. It's a narrative dripping in character, intrigue, and history. I'd sure like to see just what it was that happened in Chinatown, back in Jake's days on the police force, which made him the cynical sleuth he's become. It'd make a great prequel. As it stands, the movie we've got is a crackerjack yarn, rich enough to demand multiple viewings.
on January 11, 2012
The Chinatown Blu-ray will be released April 3, 2012 and presented in 1080p high definition with English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, English Restored Mono Dolby TrueHD, French Mono Dolby Digital, Spanish Mono Dolby Digital and Portuguese Mono Dolby Digital, as well as English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
Special features are set to include:
*Commentary with Robert Towne and David Fincher-- Towne and Fincher offer unique insights into this classic film.
*Water and Power (HD)-- In this three-part documentary, Robert Towne visits sites along the original Los Angeles Aqueduct for the first time. He is informed of the social and environmental impacts and given insight into the major issues around the creation and ongoing operation of the aqueduct.
*The Aqueduct (HD)-- The City of Los Angeles completed the 233-mile gravity-fed aqueduct from the Owens Valley in 1913, under the leadership of a self-taught engineer named William Mulholland. L.A. Department of Water and Power representatives along with Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of the engineer, discuss the development of the aqueduct and its contribution to the growth of the nation's second-largest city.
*The Aftermath (HD)-- For decades a large rural community was desiccated under the management of water rights by the City of Los Angeles over a vast area of the Owens Valley. Legal victories beginning in the 1970's lead to successful reductions in environmental damages and the restoration of some natural habitats. Historians, local ranchers and activists discuss the up-to-date impacts of the aqueduct and struggle to maintain a stable environment and community.
*The River & Beyond (HD)-- Prior to the building of the first aqueduct a century ago Los Angeles relied solely on its own local water supply: the Los Angeles River and its aquifer. Today the river as a water resource is largely forgotten. Currently there are plans to re-develop the river to reduce L.A.'s dependence on imported water, reducing the environmental impact on distant communities, while creating parks and open spaces for the city.
*Chinatown: An Appreciation-- In this featurette, prominent filmmakers express their personal admiration for the film: Steven Soderbergh - Director ( Traffic), James Newton Howard - Composer ( The Dark Knight), Kimberly Peirce - Writer/Director ( Boys Don't Cry), and Roger Deakins - Cinematographer ( No Country For Old Men).
*Chinatown: The Beginning and the End
*Chinatown: The Legacy
*Theatrical Trailer (HD)
*Cover artwork using the original theatrical poster
on November 6, 2007
So, if you own the previous edition is it worth the double dip? Yes and no. If you're a casual fan, then no. If you're devotee of this masterpiece then I would say yes if only for the new transfer and extras.
The original DVD had a decent transfer and a featurette that included interviews with Robert Evans, Roman Polanski, and Robert Towne. While only running 12 minutes, it was a pretty good trip down memory lane. These new extras bring back all three men and Jack Nicholson for brand new interviews. This new disc also has an improved transfer that is a noticeable improvement over the previous edition.
"Chinatown: The Beginning and The End" is a 20-minute retrospective look at the genesis of the film with Evans, Nicholson, Polanski and Towne talking about how they got involved with the project. Towne talks about several things that inspired his script and how his friendship with Nicholson informed the character of Gittes.
"Chinatown: Filming" is a 25-minute examination of the principal photography. Polanski says that Evans gave him complete creative freedom. However, they clashed over the look of the film. Evans wanted it to look like The Godfather films while Polanski wanted it to resemble a Raymond Chandler detective novel. All four men recount some fascinating filming anecdotes.
"Chinatown: Legacy" is a ten-minute look at how the film was initially received by test audiences. Polanski realized that the film's music had to be changed and Jerry Goldsmith was brought in to compose a score in only nine days! The studio felt that the film was "too intellectual" and the critics loved it. Chinatown went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards but only won one for Towne's screenplay.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.
on January 7, 2005
This is one of the all time great mysteries, perhaps the most superb of all the neo-noir films. Personally, I have never liked the ending (where is Bogie when you need him?), but nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and brilliantly directed. The original is visually gorgeous - but you might as well buy the VHS version. This DVD is really awful. The focus is fuzzy. It looks like someone took an aging, washed-out copy, upped the color saturation, and called it remastered. The skin tones are almost too bright, but the colors while still faded, are too dark and murky. I still remember the subtle use of color from when I first saw the film, the beautiful pinks and blues and yellows playing against the cool neutrals. The rich darks giving gorgeous contrast. And I remember the perfect LA light. Only the brightest sunlit scenes come even close to the way it should look. This is a Hollywood masterpiece, and deserved great love and care in its restoration. It didn't get them.
This 1974 film takes the classic film noir detective movie to new heights. Yes, there is murder, scandal and lots of lies. But yet Jack Nicholson, cast as a private eye, is a sympathetic character. There's one scene in which the director, Roman Polanski, playing a bit part as a thug, rips open Nicholson's nose with a knife. This is the kind of wound that makes the audience grimace every time someone refers to it in the film. Faye Dunaway is cast as the femme fatale. She's beautiful, of course, and it's hard to take our eyes off of her. She's a woman of mystery, but little by little we glimpse her humanity. And by the time her secret is revealed, she's won everyone's heart.
Based on a real life scandal in Los Angeles in 1908, another underlying theme is about water and power in this desert city. The action takes place in the 1930s, and the details of that period of time are well portrayed, right down to Faye Dunaway's shaved and penciled eyebrows. The screenplay won an Academy Award and I can understand why. It was tightly written and revealed details that moved the plot forward at just the right pace. I sat there fascinated, not wanting to take my eyes off the screen, trying to figure out what would happen next and constantly surprised by the next twist and turn. John Huston is cast in the role of a wealthy landowner with a huge secret of his own. He's a fine actor and his presence on the screen added depth to the whole production.
The DVD has a special interview with the writer, Robert Towne, as well as Roman Polanski. This added to my enjoyment of the film and provided further insight about its production. Definitely recommended.