*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 03/25/12 ***
Hey Doc, Malone here. This time around, I was lucky enough to check out Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, “Chinatown” in dazzling Blu (available April 3rd from Paramount.) As soon as that famous mountain appeared in glorious sepia tone, I remembered exactly how much I love this film. Once in a blue moon, a movie comes along that perfectly delivers a time, a place, and a mood all the while maintaining timeless themes that keep viewers returning to a relevant story as years go by. “Chinatown” is probably the best example of such a film, yet over the last few days I’ve realized how polarizing it really is.
I don’t think anybody actually likes “Chinatown.” You either love it or you hate it. A few of my friends aren’t too big on the picture and I suppose I can understand why. Yes, it’s slowly (read: deliberately) paced by today’s standards. Yes, you’ve got to pay close attention to a very complex story unraveling before you. Yes, it’s a two hour plus film about water. But it’s so much more: scandal, deceit, murder, corruption, dangerous dames and deadly secrets – it’s Shakespeare by way of Chandler. Without “Chinatown,” Roger Rabbit would’ve gone unframed and it’s unlikely any “Chinaman” would’ve thought to pee on some Dude’s rug. If you fall into the “I just couldn’t get into it” category, this Blu disc release is the perfect opportunity to give it another go. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already got this one pre-ordered. If not, you should.
If you’re not familiar with the film, let me give you the Cliff notes. It’s 1937, Los Angeles and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator who specializes in marital surveillance. A woman named Evelyn Mulwray hires him to spy on her husband, Hollis, who happens to be the chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power. After tailing Mr. Mulwray, Gittes gets some photos of the unfaithful husband with his mistress, a young woman named Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer). The next day, these pictures are plastered all over the papers and a full-fledged scandal is broken! Enter the REAL Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) who helps Jake realize he’s been duped with the aid of a big fat lawsuit. Now his reputation is tarnished and any hope he has in repairing it rests on finding out who set this up and why. I’ve heard “Chinatown” described as an onion, layer after layer peeling away as the movie progresses. As Jake unearths one answer, another three questions pop up and what starts out as a simple infidelity case leads to bigger mysteries that ultimately affect the future of Los Angeles.
The City of Angels plays a major role in this movie. You’ve got so many different landscapes to choose from: desert, ocean, rural farmland, ritzy estates, and seedy urban areas. Jake has the opportunity to visit vastly different worlds all within a few miles of one another and the filmmakers take full advantage of it. The film was shot in Downtown LA, Catalina Island, South Pasadena, Glendale, Hollywood, Echo Park and Brentwood just to name a few places. “Chinatown” is a love letter to this city that in the 1930′s, was still in its adolescence and full of energy and potential. It’s the wild, wild west of the early 20th century. There is much money to be made and corruption falls on both sides of the law, giving a perfect backdrop for the obvious star of this film.
I consider Jake Gittes the quintessential Jack Nicholson role. He’s a rogue with a code; a sleazebag with morals. I just love this type of character: somebody who on the surface looks like a lowlife, a guy nobody would think twice about writing off, but who ultimately gets thrown into a situation bigger than anyone ever imagined. Then he rises to it. Gittes used to be a cop in Chinatown surrounded by the filthy and corrupt. At some point, he leaves the force to become a private eye and while he believes he makes “an honest living,” the work he primarily gets is spying for jealous spouses. While he isn’t on the take like many of his “respected” former co-workers (one of whom is now a Lieutenant), he’s seen as scum that makes money going through other people’s dirty laundry. But when he stumbles onto a mystery involving the water department and the fleecing of millions of dollars, it’s obvious that only a hardass like Gittes is stubborn enough to get to the bottom of it. Nicholson plays Jake as I’d like to imagine he is in real life: a quick wit who’s sarcastic and magnetic. While he’s not going to be bullshitted by anybody, he just may bullshit you to get what he wants. He’s a charming scoundrel who’s as tough as his surroundings, waging a one-man war against bureaucracy. The guy is so electric, you can’t take your eyes off him, even when his back is turned towards you. Nicholson was nominated for Best Actor in this role, but lost to Art Carney for the considerably less memorable “Harry and Tonto”. It’s a pitch perfect performance that alone is worth the price of this disc.
The cinematography here is gorgeous and in 1080p, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful film. Shots are meaningfully composed, packing loads of information into some surprisingly long takes. Throughout much of the film, we get to follow Gittes, looking over his shoulder and giving viewers the treat of living vicariously through this private dick. We get to learn things as he’s learning them. In some fighting scenes, Polanski chooses to go handheld (though never too shaky) to give us the feel of actually participating in the fight. The imagery on this disc is sharp and clean, the lighting is vibrant and the colors just pop. The mood of the movie is driven by its look and you’ve never seen “Chinatown” presented better than this. You can tell Paramount really put the effort in with this one and it pays off in spades. You’ll feel like you’ve just gone back to 1930′s LA.
This release features 5.1 Dolby TrueHD as well as a restored Dolby TrueHD mono track. Now, while I’m usually a bit of a purist and would prefer the original mono, this time I was surprised to say that I favored the 5.1. There’s not really a HUGE difference between the two tracks and both sound great. However, I really appreciate the immersive quality in which this film was shot and the 5.1 mix made me feel just a teeny tiny bit more like I’m there with Jake. While the dialogue sounded like it was coming from a movie screen in both options, the mono felt just a little more claustrophobic . It wasn’t as restricting as, say, listening to a Michael Bay movie through a single speaker, but I so desperately want to visit this world. Every little bit that adds to the illusion that I’m there is fine with me… and that little bit goes a long way. It’s mostly musical notes and occasional background noise that take advantage of the surround sound, but it’s never overpowering. For example, you won’t necessarily hear gunshots whizzing by your head, but when Jake is driving through an orange grove trying to get away from angry, shotgun-wielding farmers, you hear the leaves brushing along both sides of the car. It’s subtlety, Doc… and it’s surprisingly effective.
There’s not much new in terms of extras on the disc. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much a High- Def version of the 2009 Centennial Collection DVD. You’ve got the three part documentary “Water and Power” in HD where screenwriter Robert Towne visits sites along the LA aqueduct and talks about its creation and operation. If you’re a history buff, you might find this interesting, but I found my attention span ending somewhere around ten minutes in. I really enjoyed the featurette “Chinatown: An Appreciation” where filmmakers Steven Soderburgh (“Ocean’s Twelve”), Kimberly Pierce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), composer James Newton Howard (“The Dark Knight”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”) discuss their love of the picture. Like both the Centennial Collection and Special Edition DVD from 2007, they’ve also included the featurettes “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End”, “Chinatown: Filming” and “Chinatown: The Legacy” which I found delightful. Hearing Jack, Roman Polanski, and producer Robert Evans talk about creating a classic left me entranced. I could listen to these guys talk for days. The theatrical trailer is also included in full HD as well as an informative and entertaining commentary with Robert Towne and director David Fincher (The Social Network).
I give this one 5 out of 5 reels. If you don’t already own “Chinatown” (particularly the aforementioned 2009 release) this is an absolute must buy. If you do have that version you won’t find anything new here, but the picture and sound quality are nothing short of incredible. It’s certainly worth considering the upgrade. If you’ve only seen the film once and don’t remember liking it all that much, this is the perfect opportunity to give it another chance. You may pick up on things you missed the first time around or if you’re just interested in filmmaking, it’s a veritable education in the art form.
Like most modern classics, the film only gets better with each subsequent viewing. So if you were thinking of letting this one slip beneath your radar: Forget it, Doc. It’s Chinatown.
CHECK OUT THE ORIGINAL THEATRICAL TRAILER FOR “CHINATOWN”