Blu-ray Review: Chinatown

Not all films stand the test of time, and that goes for certain ones that are considered classics as well. Chinatown, however, is a film that not only holds up to fresh eyes today, but also looks better than ever with its immaculate Blu-ray transfer.

The highly acclaimed Roman Polanski film had the unfortunate task of going head to head with The Godfather Part II at the Academy Awards back in 1974, otherwise there’s little doubt that this masterpiece would not only have taken home the top prize, but many of the other awards as well. In the end, it was only Towne who received gold for his incredibly structured and multi-layered screenplay that still stands out as one of the best-written pieces to date.

The story begins in classic noir territory, with a woman, Evelyn Mulwray, hiring private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to follow her husband, who she believes is cheating on her. The man is Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and when Gittes accepts the case he believes it will be a quick payday and that will be that. Though after pictures he took of the suspect couple are released to the press, Gittes is confronted by another woman who claims to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and he quickly realizes he and Hollis Mulwray have been set up. Now, in order to clear his name and save his reputation, Gittes must find out who hired him, and what they had to gain from it.

Chinatown is flat out brilliant. It’s a film that only gets better the more you think about it, and the longer you pick it apart. As you peel back the layers, you realize that Towne had so much planned from the very beginning, and it makes you realize just how meticulously calculated the creation of his screenplay actually was. While plenty of films require repeat viewings to get the full story, Chinatown is one that works the first time you see it, and only gets stronger upon additional viewings.

Many from my generation recognize Nicholson for his portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. Of course, there’s also his hugely recognizable work as Jack Torrence in The Shining as well; however, it wasn’t until finally seeing Chinatown that I realized who his coolest, most iconic character truly is. His work as Gittes is superb, and really has so many dimensions that you have to watch everything the character does throughout to really see his true intentions, and everything he’s made up of. He’s such a rich character, and Nicholson does him incredible justice.

Dunaway is a perfect dame for the film, and is a supporting character with just as many layers as the protagonist. Towne did a wonderful job creating these deep characters, and every actor did their part in making them stand out on the screen as much as they do on the page – including ones I can’t really mention here without running the risk of even minor spoilers.

Polanski’s direction here is flawless, really getting into wonderful positioning with the camera positioned behind Nicholson almost entirely throughout so that the viewer can see the entire mystery unfold just as Gittes does. The cinematography is great, and every technical aspect of the film comes together seamlessly. The editing is excellent, with the story elements unfolding at a perfect pace to keep the viewer engrossed throughout without ever overwhelming them with too much information at once.

Chinatown is a classic that continues to impress even to this day with its gripping story, rich characters and perfect direction. Nicholson is a master at his craft, with many memorable roles throughout his career, though his work as Gittes is really some of his best. Everyone else is also at the top of their game in this picture, which is why it’s a timeless classic.

The Blu-ray transfer of Chinatown is remarkable, with superb picture quality and wonderful audio transition. There’s no doubt that even if you’re someone who owns the DVD and doesn’t like double dipping, this is worth the purchase. This is the definitive version of Chinatown to own, and a must for any and all with a Blu-ray player.

The special features for Chinatown on Blu-ray cover about as much ground as any fan of the movie or film in general could hope for. It’s a wealth of information that, for the most part, is incredibly interesting to see.

Audio Commentary with Screenwriting Robert Towne and Filmmaker David Fincher – This is a no-brainer for fans of the film, as there’s no better source of information than the creative mind behind the film telling stories about every aspect of it, alongside Fincher.

Water and Power – This is a feature that’s broken into three parts and runs at an hour and twenty minutes in length. It’s a hefty piece that sees Towne visit the L.A. Aqueduct for the first time (one of the main inspirations for the film) and a look at its history, how it works, and pretty much every other aspect surrounding it and its importance to L.A.

Chinatown: An Appreciation – This feature runs at just under half an hour in length, and sees Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven), Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), composer James Newton Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins all talk about the film in great depth. It’s a great feature to watch, and definitely one of the most interesting, as you get to see these wonderful industry minds all dissect the film top to bottom.

Chinatown: The Beginning and the End – This feature runs at just under 20 minutes and sees Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, and Producer Robert Evans all talk about the film, where the idea came from and how it was originally planned as a trilogy. There’s a lot of information to be had here as well, as this is another feature that’s worth a watch with all the main players in the game.

Chinatown: Filming – Just over 25 minutes this time out, as the feature covers what the title says: the filming of the movie. It covers a lot of ground once more, and continues the trend of solid featurettes to be found on this disc.

Chinatown: The Legacy – Finally, there’s a feature that’s just under 10 minutes in length, and sees the main players all talk about why the film is a classic, how it’s stood the test of time, and the initial success of the film back when it was released.

Chinatown is a great film that not only stands strong against any and all in the genre that came before or after it, but also holds up as one of the finely crafted films of all time. For those who don’t own the film, or haven’t seen it yet, look no further, as the mystery of what your next purchase should be has just been solved. Highest recommendation.

Paramount Home Entertainment presents Chinatown. Directed by: Roman Polanski. Written by: Robert Towne. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston. Running time: 130 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: April 3, 2012. Available at

Tags: ,