DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition)

By Adnan Tezer Nov 7, 2007, 18:59 GMT

DVD Review: Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition)

Landmark movie in the film noir tradition, Roman Polanski\'s Chinatown stands as a true screen classic. Jack Nicholson is private eye Jake Gittes, living off the murky moral climate of sunbaked, pre-war Southern California. Hired by a beautiful socialite (Faye Dunaway) to investigate her husband\'s extra-marital affair, Gittes is swept into a maelstrom of double dealings and deadly deceits, uncovering a web of personal and political scandals that come crashing ...more


SECTION: Reviews

LOCATION: Dallas, Texas


spent the last 5 years in Los Angeles as an
> actor/screenwriter. I gradauted with a Bachelor's in journalism from The
> University of Texas at Austin in 1999

Chinatown remains a landmark of American cinema. Released in 1974 in the midst of the greatest decade ever for American film, Chinatown was at one time an homage to the old film noirs of the 40s and 50s, an homage to a Los Angeles of old and a career highlight for all involved including producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, writer Robert Towne and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

Paramount has released a second edition of Chinatown that does contain some decent new extras in the form of new interviews with Towne, Polanski and Nicholson but still leaves a great deal lacking. 

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator in 1937 Los Angeles that specializes in catching cheating spouses in the act. Early on, he is visited by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of Holis Mulwray. She suspects that he is cheating on her and hires Gittes to follow him. Mulwray just happens to be Chief Engineer of the L.A. Water and Power Commission. Gittes follows him to city hearings, where he announces his refusal to build a dam that supposedly could ease the city’s water concerns as the city is experiencing a drought.


Gittes eventually does catch him in the company of a younger woman and the pictures he takes are splashed over the papers. Gittes isn’t exactly pleased with the coverage but he is even less pleased when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up in his office threatening to sue him. Gittes has been set up and he’s not used to being the one caught with his pants down. He is dogged in his search for the truth and this leads him to more dead bodies, lies, his own past, money, lots of water, a slit nose, conspiracy and incest. 

The film would be nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Director, Actor, Actress and Picture but would win only one. Robert Towne’s screenplay, which he won an Oscar for, is one that is still studied in film school today in terms of its story structure. The dialogue is immortal and still sounds like poetry. The title refers not so much as to the actual location but a state of mind and a past that Gittes cannot escape from.

The eventual conspiracy involving the attempt to buy up land in the San Fernando Valley cheaply by diverting water away from the land so that the owners are forced to sell, is elaborate and complicated yet is built up carefully and makes sense at the end. We, just like Jake, aren’t meant to really understand the full scope of this until it is too late. 

Towne fought with Polanski over the ending; Towne wanted a slightly more upbeat one while Polanksi wanted a tragic, downbeat ending. Polanski prevailed and Towne admits that it was the right choice.

This film would mark the first time Polanksi had returned to L.A. following the Manson family murders in which his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was killed. Chinatown is marked with a sense of impending sadness and tragedy and that is a direct result of Polanski’s mindset.

He didn’t believe, understandably so, in happy endings or justice and Chinatown is a hard reminder that the good guys don’t always win at the end and sometimes the wrong people end up dead and alive. Next to The Pianist and Rosemary’s Baby, this would be Polanski’s greatest work. 

Nicholson would turn in one of his career best performances as Jake Gittes and continued his upward swing that began with Easy Rider in 1969 that would make him one of the top actors of all time. Towne and Nicholson were good friends long before the film and it’s easy to see how Towne fashioned Gittes after Nicholson’s strengths as an actor.

It has to be noted the daring that Nicholson had to take a role that would require him to have a hideous bandage on his face for a good deal of the film. This was still early on in Nicholson’s success and until this film; he hadn’t had a huge hit yet.

This isn’t one of Nicholson’s later works where he was all too aware of his larger than life persona but rather the Nicholson that could be at once funny, manic, vulnerable and explosive. Gittes is in every scene of the film and Nicholson makes every one count. Nicholson’s Gittes will remind you frequently of Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.

Faye Dunaway’s work as Evelyn Mulwray would also be amongst her best work of the decade. With her exotically beautiful face and dark make-up, she evokes the memories of classic film noir femme fatales like Mary Astor and Barbara Stanwyck yet puts a spin on the character that will haunt you long after the film ends.

Evelyn Mulwray like everyone else in the film, has a lot to hide from Gittes, but her secret is one of the cinema’s most jaw dropping plot twists and the scene between her and Nicholson where he slaps her around until she confesses is film acting at its finest.  

The legendary director John Huston has a small but crucial part as Evelyn’s father Noah Cross. Huston doesn’t have much screen time but his Noah Cross is one of the great villains who evokes sneaky charm and evil eyes along with his blatant mispronunciation of Gittes’ name.

Huston gets a great deal of the film’s iconic lines including his warning to Jake and us early on “You may think you know what you’re dealing with but believe me you don’t.” The rest of the stellar cast includes a pre-Magnum P.I. John Hillerman, Burt Young and Polanksi himself in a creepy cameo as a hood who slits Gittes’ nose open with a switchblade.

John A. Alonzo’s sun baked cinematography evokes an L.A. of yesteryear while Richard Sylbert’s production design and Anthea Sylbert’s costume design will have you believing that you’re watching people in 1937 from the cars to the clothes. Jerry Goldsmith, who was brought in at the last minute literally to rescore the film, provides the film with a haunting, lingering mood that is as much a character as any human in the film. 

The 1999 DVD had a 13-minute “Retrospective Interviews” with Polanski, Towne and Evans as its sole extra so anything new here would’ve been welcome.  What is particularly disturbing about this new edition is that it seems like it was thrown together with little to no care.

The menus are static and silent and the cover art is a slapped on picture of Nicholson and Dunaway and not the original, classic poster art. The older version had images from the film running over the menus, the wonderfully haunting Jerry Goldsmith score playing in the background and the original poster art on the cover. 

The back of the case says that there are four new featurettes included here: Chinatown: The Beginning and the End, Chinatown: Style, Acting Chinatown, and Chinatown: The Classic. When you watch the disc there are only three featurettes:  Chinatown: The Beginning and the End, Chinatown: Filming and Chinatown: Legacy. Obviously there was no attempt to maintain any consistency between what is printed on the box and what’s actually included.

If you watch then you can see that the Filming featurette is supposed to umbrella the Style and Acting featurettes that the box touts while The Legacy featurette is essentially The Classic section. All combined the featurettes run about 55 minutes and feature some excellent and more importantly NEW interviews with Nicholson, Polanski and Towne while the Evans clips are ported over from the 1999 version’s interviews.

The shoot had its tempestuous moments especially between Dunaway and Polanski but she needed to be a part of these interviews. Other than the featurettes, there is the theatrical trailer and no commentary.

The film itself is a solid four stars and still holds up remarkably well after 33 years. But there has yet to be a definitive “Special Edition” of this classic and this one gets…three out of five.

Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition) is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for this version of the DVD in the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.

Further Reading on M&C

Faye Dunaway Biography - - Faye Dunaway Movies -
Jack Nicholson Biography - - Jack Nicholson Movies -
Roman Polanski Biography - - Roman Polanski Movies -


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Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition)

Landmark movie in the film noir tradition, Roman Polanski's Chinatown stands as a true screen classic. Jack Nicholson is private eye Jake Gittes, living off the murky moral climate of ...more

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