Jack Nicholson’s career has been decades of a man who is constantly redefining himself. Few actors have created as many memorable roles; among them has to be Jake Gittes. This Raymond Chandler styled character first appeared here in the Roman Polanski Film Noir Chinatown. The feel of Chinatown was far more effective in 1974 than it is today. Unfortunately the style has been done to death and often with disastrously horrid results. Still, in 1974, Polanski was able to create an effective atmosphere and use it not just for style but as a place to tell an engaging story. Chinatown takes you to a Los Angeles that simply no longer exists. He utilized many locations that were even in 1974 on the verge of disappearing forever. Perhaps one of the reasons that the style has never been reproduced quite so successfully since is that Chinatown was made at just the right time. The last dying embers of the Los Angeles between the wars are caught on film, making Chinatown a somewhat historical event in itself.
No one will argue that this is a solid cast. Jack Nicholson had not yet established himself to this point, and he admits that Chinatown went a long way in the start of that for him. I’m not much of a fan of Faye Dunaway, and I did not enjoy her at all in this film. She tries far too hard to walk in the shadow of the Golden Age actresses, so that it becomes almost ridiculous to watch. She attempts with the turn of her head or a puff of a smoke to remind us of Lauren Bacall or Greta Garbo, but it’s mere play acting, and obvious play acting at that. Perry Lopez is solid as Jake’s friend/nemesis cop Escobar. He holds his own even when going toe to toe with Nicholson, and that’s never been an easy task. John Huston is hardly in the film at all as the ultimate bad guy, but his presence dominates the piece. This was truly an unforgettable role for the actor known mostly for his direction efforts. The actors, for the most part, fit their roles well, only adding to the atmosphere Polanski fills every frame with. This is an excellent film to watch if you are interested in the subtle nuances that combine to carry the audience to another time and place.
With all this said, Chinatown is not anything close to a great film. There are many flaws that keep it from crossing over that threshold. The pacing is tiresome. The film often bogs down in terribly clichéd dialog. The running time is too long, and it suffers from uneven editing. This likely explains why the film was good enough to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards but take home only one. The film has a lot going for it and is more than worth a second or even third look, but time has given the film a classic status that is not completely deserved. As Maxwell Smart would say: “Missed it by that much”.
Jake Gittes is a Chandler style detective with all of the trappings. From the office to the secretary and the cop friend, Gittes is a cliché. He appears to specialize in tracking down extramarital affairs. When he’s hired to keep an eye on a rich millionaire, the subject turns up dead, and maybe it wasn’t his wife at all who hired him. Gittes now must investigate to save his own hide. His investigation leads him to a corrupt water department taking advantage of a manufactured drought. His client has a dark secret that only complicates Gittes’ efforts.
Chinatown is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Much of what too many modern home theater enthusiasts would consider flaws are actually necessary elements of the rich atmosphere the film creates. Yes, there is considerable grain, and colors are often quite soft and subdued, but all of this only strengthens the Film Noir identity of the film. Black levels are better than the grain would indicate. Shadow detail is extremely important here, and the DVD delivers at least most of the time. Contrast is nice, and the picture goes from very sharp to often a bit blurry. Unfortunately there are some scratches and other minor print defects to contend with.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a wonderful tribute to the recently late Jerry Goldsmith. This is one of his best scores, and this new mix does a marvelous job in its presentation. Little else outside of dialog matters. Goldsmith added the absolute perfect touch to complete the film’s effective style. I never saw Chinatown in the theater, but I doubt that 1974 systems could match what you get here. It’s obvious somebody knew what was important when remixing this soundtrack.
I’m not sure I like the new menu start Paramount has used here. It requires you to select a menu language before the disc loads. While I might be putting my American-centric bias on display here, I believe the same multi-language option could be offered in the main menu. Anything that slows down me getting to my film I’m not going to like.
Chinatown – Beginning To End: This 19 minute collection of interviews covers a lot of ground. Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, and writer Robert Towne talk quite candidly about their experiences with Chinatown. Polanski explains how reluctant he was to return to L.A. when this was his first film back after the brutal Manson murders which included his wife, Sharon Tate. We discover that Chinatown had been planned as a trilogy. It’s no surprise to find out that Raymond Chandler was an inspiration to the film. There are moments where their recollections are not the same. Unfortunately these are separate interviews and they are not together.
Chinatown – Filming: This 25 minute feature is an obvious continuation of the first. I’m sure they were split for residual reasons. Robert Evans, producer, is added to the mix here. This section focuses on those crucial L.A. locations. The nose incident is discussed and a few on-set spats are admitted.
Chinatown – The Legacy: It seems no one really expected the film to be as successful as it was, and yet all parties were ultimately disappointed in its final status. Each of the four talks about how they viewed the film then and now.
There is also the Theatrical Trailer.
After reading this you might be under the impression I’m on the fence for this one. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chinatown is a very good movie, and your collection could only benefit from its inclusion. It’s just not the “one of the best films of all time” kind of movie time has often made it. This is a respectable version of the film, and it does hold up well to the nearly 35 years since its release. Some will chide me for daring to point out that the film does have its flaws. “Do you know the expression let sleeping dogs lie?”