“You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
You can count the great private-eye flicks on the fingers of one hand, and once you get past “The Maltese Falcon” (1940) you’re on your own. Besides the “Falcon,” some of my own personal favorites include Dick Powell’s “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), Bogart’s “The Big Sleep” (1946), Robert Mitchum’s “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), Harrison Ford’s “Blade Runner” (1982), Denzel Washington’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), and, of course, Jack Nicholson’s “Chinatown” (1974). OK, so, I’ve got seven fingers.
Like an intricate Chinese puzzle box, “Chinatown” starts out simply and opens up into a labyrinth of complications. As one of the characters says, in Chinatown “you can’t always tell what’s going on.” Intrigue and suspense are the order of the day, and nothing is as it appears. Inscrutable, to be sure, and a wonderfully entertaining motion picture.
Nicholson stars as a Philip Marlowe-like private eye, Jake Gittes, working in Los Angeles in the late nineteen-thirties. We know the time because director Roman Polanski is attentive to details. Pictures of FDR hang on the walls, Seabiscuit is everyone’s favorite horse, and a newspaper masthead reads “September 29, 1937.” Jake takes on a modest investigation into the affairs of an unfaithful husband, the kind of case he handles all the time, and he ends up in a plot that leads him to the highest reaches of power.
L.A. was essentially a desert community without water in the early part of the twentieth century, so water became a key issue in the politics of the city’s development. The people who controlled the water controlled the town. The movie paints a picture of unbounded corruption, with skeletons in every closet, double dealing the order of the day, and evil conquering all. Everything is about the water.
Amid this perversity sits J.J. Gittes. Like the classic PI’s of fiction, Jake is a tough guy, smart, glib, somewhat romantic, and thoroughly decent. While he may not admit to being a pillar of the community, he is honest and makes a reasonably successful living at what he does. It’s one of Nicholson’s best roles because Polanski keeps the actor’s natural propensity toward exaggerated histrionics in check. Jake is basically sweet and engaging, rough-hewn and somewhat crude, to be sure, but essentially a charming roughneck. Polanksi also has the audacity to cover up Nicholson’s good looks for over half the picture. Early on, a hood (Polanski in a cameo) slits Jake’s nose, and Jake has to keep it bandaged for most of the rest of the film. Like everything else about the story, Jake’s very appearance seems eerily off-balance.
Faye Dunaway plays the female interest, a rich socialite who eventually hires Jake to do some work for her. She is a quintessential femme fatale, with emphasis on the latter. John Huston plays a big-shot multimillionaire who could be behind much of the story’s wrongdoing. He may be elegant of speech, but he’s creepy in every scene. Huston’s character seems positively “capable of anything.” The big film connection here is that Huston had directed “The Maltese Falcon,” the father of all detective films, nearly a quarter century earlier. Others in a strong cast include John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Diane Ladd, and Burt Young.
Robert Towne wrote the film, and Robert Evans produced it. The Academy nominated it for a ton of Oscars–Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, etc., the film ultimately winning Best Screenplay for Towne. And everybody loved the movie. It became so popular that Nicholson followed it up with a sequel, “The Two Jakes,” again with the same writer and Nicholson not only starring but directing. It’s not a bad film, but given the quality of the original, it didn’t quite live up to its own competition. “Chinatown” is that good.
“You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode, the video engineers do a capable job transferring the 2.35:1 ratio, Panavision movie to Blu-ray. The Technicolor is rich, often vibrant, although facial tones are sometimes a little too reddish-orange; definition is more than adequate, probably as good as the original print; and a fine, inherent film grain gives the image a realistic texture.
Paramount use lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 to reproduce the soundtrack. It does its work commendably clarifying the dialogue, making every word and every noise sharp and clean. Although speech and background music make up most of the sound, there is a fairly wide front-channel stereo spread involved; a pleasant ambient bloom in Jerry Goldsmith’s soft, bluesy score; and a little, a very little, information fed to the surrounds.
There’s a healthy crop of extras on the disc, starting with a great audio commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne and director David Fincher, who discuss the film with insight, humor, and intelligence. After that is a seventy-seven minute, 2009 documentary, “Water and Power,” divided into three segments called “The Aqueduct,” “The Aftermath,” and “The River and Beyond,” wherein the film’s writer and others discuss the importance of water to the Los Angeles area. Then there is a 2009 featurette, “Chinatown: An Appreciation,” twenty-six minutes, with a number of people who praise the film. And following that are three 2007 featurettes that are really three parts of one longer featurette in which director Roman Polanski and others talk about the film; these segments are “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End,” nineteen minutes; “Chinatown: The Filming,” twenty-five minutes; and “Chinatown: The Legacy,” nine minutes.
The extras conclude with sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case, along with an eight-page booklet insert, the two items further enclosed in a handsomely embossed cardboard slipcover.
“Chinatown” is suspenseful, intriguing, well acted, and fast paced, despite Polanski taking things at a relaxed tempo. You’ll find no quick edits or shaky cams here, yet its continuous revelations and perfectly attuned period atmosphere keep it as fresh today as when it first appeared. “Chinatown” thoroughly fits the detective genre, while giving the genre a very special twist of its own. One cannot even take the ending for granted.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”