With Chinatown, Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne fashioned a multifaceted morality play that spoke both to a specific (and enduring) history of violence and corruption in the City of Angels and, more broadly, to the disenchanted orphans of the Summer of Love: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” If this terse ode to futility came to be recognized as one of the great final lines in film history, it’s because few others so succinctly addressed the tenor of their times—in this case, the downbeat mood exuded like a malign miasma by New Hollywood cinema in the mid ‘70s, a world-weary shrug of resignation. Despite the film’s forgivably literal ending, Chinatown was never meant as an actual destination, so much as a state of mind, a country of vague terrain where the customs are alien, motivations always suspect, and the only thing you can depend on is that no good deed will go unpunished. Hence this exchange: “What did you do there?” “As little as possible.”
Conversely, Robert Towne’s cannily crafted script would never be accused of inactivity, exhibiting all the narrative complexity of classic noirs like The Big Sleep (a story so densely plotted that even its author reportedly didn’t know whodunit), where repeated viewings only reveal additional layers of double meanings and duplicitous intentions. At the same time, Towne pulls the revisionist rug out from under viewers by revealing Faye Dunaway’s black widow Evelyn Mulwray to be the film’s neurotic heroine, a topsy-turvy alteration that transforms her into a tragic victim whose only aim is to prevent the further perversion of innocence. And that’s not the only way in which the script owes as much to Sophocles as to Chandler: Towne’s tarnished gumshoe J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) makes a fine Oedipus, doggedly pursuing his investigation to the point where he’s accomplished precisely what he most wants to avoid. Polanski ensures that viewers are restricted to Gittes’s fallible subjectivity by forcing them to observe over his shoulder as the convoluted narrative thread unravels. Robert Altman attempted something similar with his Chandler “update” The Long Goodbye, but where Altman pointed up the unfeasibility of Marlowe’s moral code by setting him adrift in the permissive haze of ‘70s L.A., Polanski and Towne transport the malaise back to its roots in their vividly imagined period piece.
Chinatown‘s imagery is so sumptuous, its wealth of period details so minutely and impeccably observed, that the film lures viewers into its morally murky world without drawing unseemly attention to its mechanics. Richard Sylbert’s set design and Anthea Sylbert’s costume design are never less than pitch perfect. John A. Alonzo’s marvelous cinematography plays theme-and-variation with the counterpoint between dun desert tones and startlingly verdant hues, including some astonishing magic-hour photography that may or may not have been lensed by veteran DP Stanley Cortez before he was summarily sacked by the director. Polanski has always adopted a protean visual style, employing the least obtrusive, yet ideally suited, means to achieve a desired effect: precision framing that plumbs psychological and spatial relations with equal acuity, sinuous camera movements unfolding over discreetly extended takes that lend certain scenes an air of unbroken dramatic unity, and a kind of subdued handheld technique worlds apart from the whiplash style that passes today for pseudo-veracity.
Paramount's 1080p/AVC Blu-ray transfer is several steps above any previous SD version on the market. Overall clarity and contrast are certainly superior. Colors are vibrant, stable, and densely saturated. Black levels are uniformly deep and dense. Textural details for things like period-specific fabrics are delineated sharply. There are two English-language tracks: remastered 5.1 surround and original stereo. On average, the 5.1 surround is the more satisfying, aside from some slight separation issues, lending Jerry Goldsmith's masterful score—sadly sultry trumpets and jarring, ominous piano chords alike—the prominence and centrality it deserves.
Wading through more than five hours of extras, carried over from the two-disc Centennial Edition DVD, allows viewers ample opportunity to dangle their toes into practically every aspect of Chinatown's historical backdrop, its conception, production, and legacy. First up, the commentary track features screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher, a longtime fan of the film. The talk tends toward some dead air early on, but the track gets more compelling, not to mention more detail-oriented, as it goes along. Fincher does the majority of the opining, starting with a few softball "Was that in the text?" questions tossed Towne's way, before he sort of takes over, offering his own voluble take on the film's visual style, character motivations, and performances. "Humble" wouldn't exactly be the word to describe Fincher's second-guessing (read: nitpicking) when it comes to certain technical decisions; then again, he's usually pretty spot on. Altogether it's a fascinating and unquestionably informative discussion.
Coming next is the three-part, feature-length documentary "Water and Power," an exhaustive investigation into the ongoing effects of the Water Wars depicted in Chinatown. Part one fleshes out the film's historical background, correcting some of its more blatant fictions and distortions. Among the roster of talking heads and participants, Towne is on hand to tour the Department of Water and Power's main aqueduct, and William Mulholland's daughter reminisces about her father and his legacy. Part two explores the social and environmental devastation inflicted on Owens Valley, where the bulk of Los Angeles's water supply originates. Part three examines the Los Angeles River, its history and current conditions, effectively skewing near the end into an advocacy piece on conservancy and resource management.
Finally, there's a four-part making-of documentary. "An Appreciation" features directors Kimberly Pierce and Steven Soderbergh, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and composer James Howard Newton. Running just under half an hour, discussion here is more insightful than the gushy backslap you might ordinarily expect. Each interviewee has some cogent things to say pertaining to their respective areas of expertise. The other segments all feature Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans, and were filmed for an earlier DVD release. In "The Beginning and the End," Towne talks about finding a book of photographs titled "Chandler's L.A.," whose pictures convinced him that doing a period piece in contemporary L.A. was still possible, the subsequent research he put in, as well as basing many of J.J. Gittes's character traits on Nicholson himself. There's talk about the script's original "happier" ending, which had Evelyn killing Noah Cross, and then being sent to the Big House for it. Polanski wanted something less equivocal (not to mention even more downbeat), feeling that Chinatown should end up in its titular locale. "Filming" delves deeper into location shooting, filmmaking techniques, the origin of Gittes's name, and how Polanski came to play his cameo role. Also up for discussion are casting Faye Dunaway (who's conspicuously absent), the exceptional equanimity of her performance, and an amusing anecdote about a violent argument between Polanski and Nicholson that erupted one Friday when production went over schedule, interfering with Jack's well-attested infatuation with basketball. "Legacy" examines Goldsmith's score, relates how it was composed in nine days as a last-minute substitute, and notes how the film fared at that year's Oscars (11 nominations, one win for Towne's script).
Forgetting Chinatown will be exceedingly difficult with this stunning new Blu-ray transfer from Paramount, brimming over with a tidal pool of extras, even if they aren't necessarily new to this edition.