Roman Polanski’s "Chinatown" has long risen to the Olympus of some of the best movies ever made. It is a timeless film that never seems to age really, despite the fact that it actually is a period piece. Apart from Polanski’s masterful direction, and the stellar performances, it is especially Robert Towne’s Academy Award-winning script that makes the film an unforgettable experience. It has long been considered a reference-script and is used in film schools throughout the world to showcase the excellence of good screenwriting. Now, Paramount Home Video has released "Chinatown" on DVD, and it helps to once again restore the movie’s glory for new generations, and fans of old.
J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a moderately successful private eye in Los Angeles, meddling mostly in people’s marriage affairs, taking them up for waking up in the wrong beds. One day a woman appears in his office and wants him to keep an eye on her husband, suspecting he has an extramarital affair. The man is Hollis Mulwray, one of the most influential men in Los Angeles’ water distribution, and after days of shadowing the busy man, Gittes indeed finds that he is meeting another woman.
The pictures he takes and hands over to his wife quickly make it to the newspapers and practically destroy the man’s credibility and political career. When he is found dead a few days later, Gittes finds himself in the middle of a confusing series of accusations that don’t seem to make much sense. Nothing of what he had found out seems to correspond with the events. Upon further investigation he is drawn into a web of deceit, personal scandals and corporate intrigue of a dimension he had never fathomed. Soon enough his own life is at risk!
In the tradition of the classic Film Noir, director Roman Polanski created a masterfully suspenseful detective tale. Surprisingly, he managed to give birth to a movie that is dark, ominous and with shadows, as we know it from the classic noir genre, but in full color, in a setting where the pouring rain is replaced by the blazing sun of California.
"Chinatown" is not only skillfully directed, written and photographed, but also masterfully acted. It is obvious from the opening moments that this script was tailor-made with Jack Nicholson in mind. The snappy lines, the whole mannerisms are uncannily Nicholson’s very own, that he breathes life into the character from the first minute. But also Faye Dunaway as the mysterious socialite is a part perfectly for the sometimes enigmatic actress. We never know what her character is feeling, we are never sure whether what we see is her real self or a fake attempt to hide a darker secret. All the way to the film’s climactic finale, the viewer is constantly torn between loving her, and abhorring her wicked ways. In comes John Huston, the legendary director in one of his few acting roles, as the film’s bad guy, and the weight he brings to the part is incredible, making Noah Cross a very subliminally dangerous person, emanating unspoken threat in his very appearance. It is the cast and the well-written dialogues that make the characters in "Chinatown" dimensional personalities with real edges and weaknesses.
Paramount Home Video has released "Chinatown" in a new widescreen transfer on this disc that restores the movie’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is 16x9 enhanced and rich with detail. Without noticeable grain or noise, the transfer superbly restores the film’s look with every bit of detail left intact. The color balance is very good and neutral, rendering the images and especially fleshtones strong and faithfully. The disc’s black-level is very good, giving the film depth and plenty of shadows, while at the same time maintaining most of the detail found in those dominating dark parts of the frame. Highlights are good and never exaggerated, reproducing "Chinatown" in all its visual glory on this DVD presentation. Nothing about this transfer gives away the film’s age and the flawless compression on this DVD vastly adds to the film’s appeal, and its bold presentation with hard contrasts.
The release contains a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital remix of the film, as well as its original monaural presentation. The 5.1 surround mix offers a nice presentation, although true surround effects are sparse and limited to only a handful of scenes. What makes the 5.1 mix superior to the mono mix is the frequency response, as it covers a wider sonic spectrum with a good bass extension that is never obtrusive of exaggerated. Sadly, I noticed some very noticeable audio dropouts on this release that were repeatable. They can be found at 0:09:07 and 0:52:41. The audio track clearly mutes for a split second for no obvious reason. Especially the first one seems to be a flaw in the mix, as it is not part of the mono mix, while the second one sounds as if a noise gate is closing too soon, cutting off all the ambience from the signal. There was a third drop-out, but I had trouble reconstructing it at a later point.
Jerry Goldsmith’s atmospheric score for the movie has found a good home on this DVD with a new 5.1 remix as well. Although the surround channels are mostly used to fill the discrete channels, occasionally it is used to great effect to increase the spatial integration of the orchestra, by adding early reflections to the mix, that suddenly create a true live surround feel.
Paramount’s release contains a few supplements, as advertised on the packaging - although the term ‘dynamic interactive menus’ is a bit hyperbolic given the fact that they are actually static menu screens. You will find the movie’s trailer on the disc, as well as a newly created short featurette with retrospective interviews with producer Robert Evans, screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski. It is a nice addition to the release that gives some interesting insight in how they perceive the film today, but stays very much on the surface of things.
"Chinatown" is one of those films you have to make time for and put yourself into the right mindset. The set-up and the constantly changing plot make it a tour-de-force to experience. You will never know, exactly what you know, or what to make of what you think you know. Even knowing the film’s resolution upon repeated viewing doesn’t take away form the experience, as your mind will constantly try to put the pieces of information you receive into context, putting together this large picture of corporate greed.
No matter how old the movie or the story is, it is timeless and easily applicable to any event today, which makes the film interesting for all audiences, whether they like period pieces or not. Paramount has made "Chinatown" a great release, although a film of this caliber would certainly deserve more supplements. Nonetheless, grab this movie if you can and settle in for a fascinating ride into the murky darkness of double-dealing and corporate intrigue in the heart of sunny California.