Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is the quintessential film noir shot in color; a hard boiled and underplayed thriller that gradually unravels into a shocking and tawdry tale of family incest. Robert Towne's screenplay is meticulously crafted to provide all the necessary hairpin turns of a classic noir; the destructive femme fatale, the embittered anti-hero, a dark underbelly of political corruption and a powerful patriarchal villain who will stop at nothing to have his way. But Chinatown is also a product of the 1970s. Despite its sumptuous and evocative cinematography by John A. Alonso and some excellent vintage costume design a la Anthea Silbert, the film never entirely escapes its decidedly 70s feel.
The story opens with a woman claiming to be Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) hiring private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to tail her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling). The woman tells Jake that she suspects Hollis of having an affair. At first, Jake's surveillance bears out this assumption. Hollis is seen in the company of a young woman (Nandu Hinds), but only in very public places. However, when Jake's innocuous photos are splashed on the cover of a sleazy tabloid the real Evelyn Mulwray (Fay Dunaway) makes her presence known by serving court papers at Jake's office.
Jake's been played for a fool and vows to unravel the mystery. In the meantime Hollis' body is discovered badly beaten in a drain near the ocean. Jake pokes around for information but winds up getting his nose slashed by a petulant thug (Roman Polanski) working for aged tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston). A nervous and contrite Evelyn resurfaces. She has decided to withdraw her lawsuit against Jake and his agency. But Jake is unimpressed. In fact, he's downright angry and, like the proverbial mad dog he is, will not let go until his case is solved.
What Jake discovers is a conspiracy between Hollis and Noah to buy up desert land at bargain prices, then irrigate it and sell it off for millions to orange growers. But proving the conspiracy will be difficult - if not impossible. In the meantime Evelyn and Jake become intimate, a seduction that has Jake suspecting a very bizarre association between Evelyn, Noah and the young girl Hollis was seen with before his untimely demise. But not even he could have fathomed that Evelyn is Noah's daughter and the mother of his child!
Chinatown marks the last film Roman Polanski made in America before his imposed exile in Europe to escape a felonious rape charge, and it has ultimately remained his masterwork. Chinatown is a film so gritty, so alive and so dangerous that it threatens to break out of its vintage trappings and become a full scale '70s crime epic. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, although it does occasionally interrupt our appreciation of the film as an immersive pastiche to late 40s noir and ultra-glamor.
Robert Towne's screenplay gives a black eye to the sunny California backdrop, peppering the story with deliciously venomous characters, conflict and moral depravity. In retrospect shades of overlap can be seen between this film and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential; both films shattering the myths of a pristine land of milk and honey to reveal dark moral decay under a very polished, though very thin veneer. It goes without saying that Chinatown is a great film - a true icon of American cinema that has never - and probably will never - age or fall out of fashion. Few films in the history of the movies can claim as much.
Previously issued DVD incarnations of Chinatown have never entirely satisfied, failing to capture the subtle nuances in both contrast and color. But Paramount Home Video’s new Blu-ray rectifies these oversights with a spectacular new 1080p transfer. Colors are rich and vibrant. The image is brighter and more detailed, with a superior visual clarity that really adds razor sharp dimension to the action without appearing digitally harsh. Film grain is, at long last, represented naturally, not digitized grit. Black levels are velvety smooth, solid and very deep.
The new DTS audio really improves on the old Dolby tracks. Dialogue sounds more natural and the score comes to live as never before. Extras are all imports from Paramount's Centennial Edition and include an audio commentary from Robert Towne and David Fincher, and archival featurettes on the making of the film, as well as a 78min. history of the real 'water and power' struggle that gripped Southern California in the early 20th century. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)