Friday, September 5, 2014

Chinatown (1974)

ChinatownA remarkable film noir classic, "Chinatown" finally gets the deluxe treatment it deserves on Blu-ray.

Blu-Ray: The Blu-ray looks quite nice. There is grain evident throughout but it isn't obstrusive staying true to the "look" of the original film and films of the time. Detail is quite nice throughout with my only complaint a bit heavy handed DNR on occasion in some scenes but that, again, could be justified if the grain was wildy inconsistent from shot to shot. The transfer walks the fine line of providing us with a sharp looking transfer that doesn't fall into the DNR pit of plastic skin and textures so smooth they rob the film of detail.

It appears that the print used for the previous DVD (and quite possibly the same transfer although I haven't been able to confirm this)was also the source for this edition of the film on Blu-ray. It's also possible this is an older HD transfer (again, I haven't been able to confirm when it was done) which might explain the look of the film for BD. either way, "Chinatown" looks quite good although purists might quibble with the amount of visibile grain and texture at times.

The audio is spectacular for the film.

As near as I can tell all of the extras from the previous special edition have largely been ported over which is good and bad--it would be nice to have some nice extras perhaps something looking at the film within the context of the original proposed trilogy a bit more or with hindsight in relation to the under rated sequelThe Two Jakes (Special Collector's Edition) which seemed to inherent the production trouble that was largely avoided on "Chinatown".

We get the audio commentary with writer Robert Towne being interviewed by film director David Fincher; the feature length documentary "Water and Power" about the inspiration for the film; a half hour documentary "Chinatown: An Appreciation"; "Chinatown: The Beginning", "Chinatown: The Filming" and "Chinatown: The Legacy all addressing the issues surrounding shooting, reception and where it stands in film history and as entertainment. We also get the original theatrical trailer and, although my edition is missing it, reportedly there is a booklet with stills and info on the film.

Bottom Line: Is this worth buying again? It depends on your TV and how good it displays high def and, more importantly, how important THIS film is to you. "Chinatown" has always been one of my Top 10 Films of all time so for me it was a no brainer.

DVD: The latest edition of "Chinatown" has much better contrast, a cleaner, richer looking transfer that more accurately captures a pristine theatrical presentation of the film. The anamorphic transfer has a bit more information on the sides than in the previous edition suggesting that it was cropped slightly differently (and I can't say which is truer to the original this edition or the previous one). Audio features the same 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that was a highlight of the first edition. We also get a cleaned up original mono soundtrack for purists. Both sound very good with the 5.1 featuring a nice dynamic mix.

This new edition is a marked improvement over the previous DVD version(s) and highly recommended.

"Water is the life blood of every community." With this statement, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's website begins its biography of William Mulholland, the real life model of two of this movie's characters, water department chief Hollis Mulwray (an obvious play on words) and water tycoon Noah Cross. And indeed water, the access to it and the wealth it provides, is what drives everything and everybody in this movie set in the ever-thirsty Los Angeles of the first decades of this century, a budding boom town on the brink of victory or decay ... and whether it will be one or th other depends on the city's ongoing access to drinking water.

"Chinatown"'s story is based on William Mulholland's greatest coup; the construction of the Owen Valley aqueduct which provided Los Angeles with a steady source of drinking water but also entailed a lot of controversy. Splitting Mulholland's complex real-life persona into two fictional characters (the noble Mulwray who thinks that water should belong to the people and who refuses to authorize an unsavory new dam construction project and the greedy, unscrupulous Cross who will use *any* means to advance his personal fortune) creates the movie's one necessary black and white conflict ... other than this, the predominant shades are those of gray.

Into the wars raging around L.A.'s water supply, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is unwittingly thrown when a woman introducing herself as Hollis Mulwray's wife asks him to investigate her husband's alleged infidelity. Before he realizes what is going on he is drawn into a web of treachery and treason, and fatally attracted to the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Noah Cross (John Huston)'s daughter. Soon reaching the conclusion that he has been used, he refuses to drop the investigation, and instead decides to dig his way to the source of the scheming he has witnessed the classical film noir setup.

To say that this movie is one of the best examples of the genre ever made is stating the obvious ... actually, it borders on being superfluous. Few other films are as tightly acted, scripted and directed, from Jack Nicholson's dapper-dressed, dogged Jake Gittes, who like any good noir detective is not half as hard boiled as he would have us believe, to Faye Dunaway's seductive and sad Evelyn Mulray, John Huston's cold-blooded and corrupt Noah Cross, Roman Polanski's brooding direction and Robert Towne's award-winning screen play, so full of memorable lines and the classical noir gumshoe dialogue, yet far more than just a well-done copy. And throughout it all, there that idea of Chinatown that place where you do as little as possible, and where if you try to help someone, you're likely going to make double sure they're getting hurt.

"Chinatown" was Roman Polanski's return to Hollywood, five years after his wife (Sharon Tate) had been one of the victims of the Manson gang. Polanski and Towne fought hard whether the movie should have a happy ending or not. Polanski won, studio politics were favorable at the time, and the version we all know was produced. Towne later admitted that Polanski had been right; and in fact, it is hard to imagine what kind of happy ending would have worked with the movie at all too deep-rooted are the conflicts presented, none of which lends itself to an easy solution. Unfortunately, being released the same year as "The Godfather II" robbed "Chinatown" much of the Academy Award attention it would have deserved; of 11 nominations (best movie, best actor Jack Nicholson -, best actress Faye Dunaway -, best director Roman Polanski , best screenplay Robert Towne -, best original score Jerry Goldsmith -, best cinematography, and others), the movie only won the Oscar for Towne's screenplay. Generations of fans, however, have long since recognized that "Chinatown" is a milestone in the history of the film noir and in the professional history of its participants, and one of Hollywood's finest hours.

Also recommended:

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles

Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (Library of America)

Complete Novels: Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man (Library of America #110)

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s: The Postman Always Rings Twice / They Shoot Horses, Don't They? / Thieves Like Us / The Big Clock / Nightmare ... / I Married a Dead Man (Library of America)

The Bogart Collection (Casablanca/The Maltese Falcon/To Have and Have Not/The Big Sleep/The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

Double Indemnity (Universal Legacy Series)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

L.A. Confidential (Two-Disc Special Edition)

Buy Chinatown (1974) Now

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.

Read Best Reviews of Chinatown (1974) Here

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: Filming

*Chinatown: The Legacy

*Theatrical Trailer (HD)

*Cover artwork using the original theatrical poster

*Collectible booklet.

Want Chinatown (1974) Discount?

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.

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