Roman Polanski may be a controversial figure, but there's no denying his talent as a director. His latest effort, 'Carnage,' didn't blow me away, but his film noir triumph from 38 years ago, 'Chinatown,' sure did. One of Polanski's greatest films, this seething, complex detective drama takes a patented blueprint and turns it inside out, twisting archetypal elements into new forms and surprising viewers at every turn. "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but you don't," one character says, and no one line better describes this elegant exercise in mystery and suspense than that.
And therein lies the genius of 'Chinatown.' Film noir is a marvelous genre, filled with texture and ambiguity, but it also can be predictable. Everything from the jaded, pugnacious, street-wise private investigator (who's also a lothario) to the ravishing, seductive, calculating, yet oh-so-vulnerable femme fatale has been ceaselessly copied and savagely lampooned since the bleak, shadowy style debuted in the 1940s. 'Chinatown' salutes the genre's origins and core components, but tries its best to buck the trends and become an atypical noir. And its success in that regard - and many others - is unqualified.
Credit screenwriter Robert Towne, who justly won an Oscar for his work on the movie, with constructing not only an intriguing detective yarn replete with twists and revelations galore, but also linking the tale to a very real and historical issue - Los Angeles' thirst for fresh water, a commodity as potentially valuable as gold, and one that inspires corruption and filthy deeds of the highest (or should I say lowest) order. The literate script, a model of hard-boiled poetry that contains a host of cryptic lines and deadpan quips, possesses more layers than an onion, and peeling them back to expose both subtle and monumental developments is one of the film's many great pleasures. Though it's a shame Towne's was the only Oscar 'Chinatown' won, out of 11 nominations, it's the most logical choice. Few scripts rivaled it then, and even fewer do today.
The story begins like any garden variety noir. It's 1937, and a rich L.A. woman (Diane Ladd) asks a cocky private dick, J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson), to follow her husband, who she believes is having an affair. The woman turns out to be an imposter, and when the husband is found dead, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), hires Gittes to solve the crime. Her late husband, however, seems to have been involved in some shady dealings concerning the city's water supply, and as Jake investigates this disturbing development, the clues further implicate Evelyn's family, which sets in motion a string of events that will shatter all the lives involved.
Revealing any more would spoil the substantial fun of this glamorous yet gritty, atmospheric, and absorbing drama that's a feast for the eyes and brain, and tough to digest in a single viewing. Towne puts Jake on a circuitous, convoluted path filled with potential pitfalls, and connecting all the dots isn't initially easy, but patience, a keen eye, and an agile brain allow one to fully appreciate the wealth of treasures that comprise this film. Despite methodical pacing, 'Chinatown' never drags, as its story is supported by hypnotic imagery and a powerhouse cast of actors who play every role to the hilt.
Nicholson puts a modern spin on the cynical 1930s private eye, lacing his captivating portrayal with a hint of contemporary attitude that makes him a relatable figure. We've all been duped by beautiful dames, but Nicholson makes sure Jake stays in control or, at the very least, bounces back, especially after a horrifc nostril-slitting incident that forces him to wear a prominent bandage on his proboscis. Despite the eyesore, rarely has the actor appeared more natural, and Polanski keeps any burgeoning Nicholson mannerisms in check.
Dunaway is equally striking, brandishing an imperious air that hides a tortured, tender, and frightened woman. Hard knocks have hardened Evelyn, but Dunaway's dimensional performance allows us to see the cracks in the character's veneer, enhancing her intriguing persona. Though from the opening frames we assume her to be a stereotypical femme fatale, Evelyn is really anything but, and seeing her become more human as the film progresses and her defenses melt is another of the film's myriad joys.
John Huston always makes a notable impression - his voice alone is worth the price of admission - and while he's far from a trained actor, he plays the pivotal role of a former magnate well. John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, and a pre-'Rocky' Burt Young also assert themselves with aplomb, adding contrasting shades to an already colorful palette. Even Polanski himself gets in on the fun in a memorable cameo.
In addition to Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress nominations, 'Chinatown' also received Oscar nods for John A. Alonzo's exquisite cinematography, the meticulous art direction/set decoration that makes the period detail sing, Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score, editing, costume design, sound, and, of course, Polanski's inspired direction, which raises 'Chinatown' to a rarefied level among motion pictures of any genre. Rarely do I use the word masterpiece, but 'Chinatown' is a masterful piece of filmmaking; a movie that grabs, challenges, and delights its audience with many small yet potent gifts. It doesn't just flirt with greatness, it takes greatness to bed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Chinatown' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside an attractive sleeve that's enhanced with raised lettering and accents. Tucked inside the front cover is a full-color, eight-page booklet that includes photos from the film and some interesting text that examines a quartet of topics - how 'Chinatown' was envisioned as the first movie in a Jake Gittes trilogy; the real-life L.A. locations where some key scenes were shot; a tragic historical incident alluded to in the film; and the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and awards 'Chinatown' received. Unfortunately, the type is infinitesimal, but that's the only negative afflicting this nice collectible bonus.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround. Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Paramount does 'Chinatown' proud with a spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that completely revitalizes this 38-year-old film. From the dazzling opening credits to the crystal clear, beautifully modulated and color-timed image that comprises the body of the film, this is a deeply sayisfying viewing experience that fully transports us to 1930s Los Angeles. Faint grain preserves the film-like feel and adds vital texture to the picture, but a lush smoothness prevails, honoring the warmth and meticulous period flavor that pervade each frame. The source material is virtually spotless, with nary a speck, mark or scratch cropping up, while superior contrast enhances depth and makes details pop.
Colors are bold, but never appear over-pushed, and blend seamlessly into the film's fabric. Jake's creamy white suit exudes a lovely tone, and the red accents of Dunaway's lipstick, a lone carnation on a restaurant table, and the upholstery of a leather booth add vibrant touches to the picture. Greens also show up well, and the varied brown hues of the desert - especially when bathed in yellow light - provide striking images. Blacks are appropriately rich and deep, and fleshtones remain true to life and stable throughout the course of the film.
Background elements are easily discernible and close-ups brim with marvelous detail. Light perspiration on Nicholson's face is evident, as well as creases, and the stitching on his nose is razor sharp. Reflections in car mirrors and windows, as well as a camera lens are wonderfully crisp, and shadow delineation is quite good, even in nocturnal scenes. A slight amount of DNR may have been applied, but it's been done with such a judicious hand it escapes notice, and no banding, crush, noise, or other digital issues affect the integrity of this terrific transfer. I can't imagine 'Chinatown' looking any better than it does here, and fans should be more than pleased with Paramount's fine rendering of a beloved film.
I'm usually not a big fan of Dolby TrueHD tracks, which I feel tend to lack the clarity and nuance of their DTS-HD counterparts, but the TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack for 'Chinatown' just might change my mind. Bursting with fidelity and a marvelous depth of tone, this first-rate audio treatment breathes new life into 'Chinatown' and further immerses us in its seductive atmosphere. Surround activity is confined to atmospherics, such as crickets peeping in the night, but it's surprisingly distinct, and noticeable stereo separation across the front channels supplies further aural interest. A wide dynamic scale handles the soaring highs of Jerry Goldsmith's music score well, and only a hint of distortion creeps in at random moments. Any surface noise, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, has been carefully erased, leaving a clean, well-balanced mix that belies the movie's advanced age.
Dialogue is well prioritized and always easy to understand, and accents such as gunfire and rushing water exhibit a nice crispness. While there isn't much bass to speak of, low end tones supply necessary warmth and weight, heightening this full-bodied, colorful, and involving soundscape. My expectations were low for this track, but this finely tuned mix far exceeded them, and should surprise others with discrminating ears.
A hefty supplemental package enhances this classic release. All the material from the 2007 and 2009 DVD releases has been ported over to this Blu-ray edition, and it's all worth watching.
'Chinatown' is a dazzling cinematic specimen that remains as intriguing, involving, and visually arresting today as it surely seemed almost 40 years ago upon its initial release. Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne meticulously evoke 1930s Los Angeles, as well as film noir, yet take the genre to new and unexpected heights, while Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway contribute iconic portrayals that brim with understated power. Paramount's Blu-ray presentation makes the film look brand new, thanks to pristine video and superb audio, and a sizeable supplemental package adds essential historical and analytical context to this movie classic. For fans of fine direction, excellent writing, searing performances, and lush cinematography, this is a must own release that surely will be enjoyed again and again and again.