This is nothing like a good old fashion film noir. It has mystery, intrigue, steamy women and dangerous men. Good law abiding people can live vicariously through a film like this safely taking a walk down the dark side on humanity. There are many variations of film noir but the best are usually set along traditional lines. A setting in the thirties provides a rich backdrop for a film like ‘Chinatown’. Next to ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ this is one of the best know works of master suspense director, Roman Polanski. It is no secret that Polanski has had some infamous personal and legal problems. Putting that aside he remains an influential and powerful director even though some of his later films have been less than critically well received. This film was the pinnacle of his career. It occurred at that magical confluence of director, screenwriter, cinematographer and cast that makes for one of the best films ever created. In fact it placed number 21 in the American Film Institute’s 2007 Best Film list, placing it in some illustrious company. This is one of those films that you can watch over and over. The first time you shouldn’t even attempt to fully dissect the film, just sit back and experience it. Like any of the classic noir flicks just let it happen. With later viewings there is so much there in the way of texture to the film that you can discuss it for a long time to come. Paramount is releasing a special edition version of this film to DVD. Like the other members of their ‘Collector’s’ editions this is a must have. The new extras and careful mastering makes this a must have title even if you have the previous edition.
Jake 'J.J' Gittes (Jack Nicholson) works as a private detective in Los Angeles. It is the early thirties and LA is on the verge of exploding as a major American city. Jake makes a reasonable living mostly in what he refers to as ‘matrimonial’ work, his polite way of saying he follows straying spouses and gets the details of their affairs. As proof Jake can usually provide a few photographs catching the indiscretions. One day a woman who claims to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) approaches Jake to hire him. She tells Jake that she is suspicious of her husband and wants him followed. Jake tries to talk her out of this action but she is determined and assures Jake that money is no problem. Hubby is Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), a city engineer who is looking into improving the Los Angels water supply. There is an upcoming bond proposition to build a new dam to bring water into the city. Jake starts his investigation with a visit to the public hearings for the bond issue. He notices that Mulwray is reading a racing form, sure sign of a gambler. He testifies that the area planed for the dam was similar to the site of a dam break that killed many people. The dam as planned will not hold. Jake has two associates that do much of the leg work for him; Walsh (Joe Mantell) and Duffy (Bruce Glover). Walsh shows Jake some photographs of Mulwray in a heated argument with Noah Cross (John Huston). There are also photos of Mulwray kissing a young woman, who turns out to be Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer), daughter of the powerful Noah. It is little surprise when Mulwary turns up dead at the reservoir. While looking into it Jake is held captive by a thug, Claude Mulvihill (Roman Polanski) who tells Jake he is too nosy and slices his nostril. It turns out that the woman claiming to be married to Mulwray is actually Ida Sessions who was hired to deceive Jake. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is also related to Cross. The mystery deepens as the leads take Jake to Chinatown to see just what is behind the treats and death. There is a political agenda behind the bond issue that is bigger than Jake could initially imagine. Sessions is found drowned in the reservoir with salt water in her lungs. The thing is the reservoir is made up of fresh water. Add to this rape, incest and payoffs and the mystery keeps pulling you in.
There are so many levels to this film that you could take months to analysis them all. The use of the name Noah to reflect a cleansing flood as well as a division of good and evil is just one of the many little touches in the script. This is a moody, dark film. While the golden age of film noir was some twenty years in the past at the time this movie was made ‘Chinatown’ certainly brought it back. The film represents the transitional between the original noir of the forties and the neo noir films that continue today. This was the last a film Roman Polanski made in the States before his well documented legal problems. It is also the greatest of his films only challenged by ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and his Oscar winning ‘The Pianist’. The film is one of the best examples of how to pace a mystery. The clues are laid out slowly, organically exposed by the characters. Even the subtle way the incest is handled is reminiscent of the more discreet era of the forties. The time period of the film, the thirties, is meticulously recreated down to the tiniest detail. At time you may even forget the actual year this film was created. Even the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith will bring you back in time. All this is tied together from the start as the film opens with the classic, black and white Paramount logo. It may have been made in the seventies but this is a true golden age of Hollywood film. Every time you watch this film you will notice something else. It is full of ironic references that span the entire film to understand. A small comment like ‘can’t let sleeping dogs lie’ comes back to haunt Jake. It is little touches like this that makes this film a perennial classic.
Most directors would sell a limb to have a cast like this. What can be said about Jack Nicholson; one of the most talented actors ever to step in front of a camera. While best known for some of his over the top performances here he delivers a carefully measured presentation of his character. He puts on the persona of Jake like an old pair of slippers, with ease and comfort. He gives one of the best performances of his career here. As for the female lead her you can’t do better than Faye Dunaway. She has that old Hollywood grace that exudes off the screen. With a smoldering performance of a life time she draws in the audience like a classic silver screen femme fatale. Her chemistry with Nicholson is like electricity. Many directors appear in their own films; in fact Polanski is in this one. To get a director of fame and untouchable reputation is another director’s film is no little feat. John Huston has a long and illustrious career on both sides of the camera and shows here he still had his acting chops. He is also perfect for the role since he helmed some of the best examples of classic film noir in existence.
Many studios try to increase their profits by re-releasing films as so called special or collector’s editions. They slap on a few rushed extras and try to get people to repurchase a film over again. This is not the case with Paramount. They have a collector’s edition series that is actually special. They typically re-master the video and audio and provide extras that give the viewers an education in their favorite films. This is the case here. They had a release of this film back in 2003 that had a few interesting interviews but this edition is worth having even if that older edition is on your self. First of all the film never looked better than it does here. The film is exactly as I remember it from the theater. There is a re-mastered Dolby 5.1 audio but I wanted to be a purest and went for the original mono sound track. We demand the original aspect ration but so often want a change in the audio. Do yourself a favor and listen to this film as it was original intended. There are four new extras presented. The first looks at the plans for the film as part of an intended trilogy. Only the second installment, ‘The Two Jakes’ was made but it would have been interesting to have all three. Next there is a behind the scenes look at the production. Next is a consideration of the legacy and impact this film has had on the art of cinema. Finally there is a look at just why this film is such a classic. You cannot consider yourself a true film lover without owning this DVD.