Movie Review: CHINATOWN Finally Comes Full Circle

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Without question, Chinatown is the most influential Hollywood film noir since Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (maybe since the John Boorman Point Blank, for those who like their noirs postmodern and skewed).  Not that Hollywood makes many straight-up noirs these days—I have a friend who thinks the Mark Wahlberg-starring Max Payne somehow counts—but those relatively few examples all evince Chinatown‘s impact.

What is L.A. Confidential, if not Chinatown with “the movie business” subbing in for “water and land rights”?  I doubt The Big Lebowski would rank as highly with noir aficionados if it didn’t treat its mother city—Los Angeles—with the same jaundiced eye, one that’s simultaneously shabby and sinister.  Even the crappy noirs like Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia share Chinatown‘s mix of historical revisionism/fetishism.

In 1974, audiences thought it was riffing on the well-established conventions of the noirs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and they weren’t wrong.  If you place something like The Big Sleep in the same room, Chinatown reflects it in odd and interesting ways.  Those earlier films drenched themselves in shadows (60% atmosphere, 40% cost-saving measure); Chinatown exists in the sun-baked heat (save a few key scenes).  Something from the ‘40s might begin with a prurient hook (a murder, or The Big Sleep‘s lurid pornography case); Chinatown burrows into…land rights (?!?) to find evil.

A noir protagonist like Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart suggested brute, savage unpredictability, whereas Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes carries himself with the dandified air of a Southern Gentleman.  My favorite tweak comes with that old standard: the constant physical abuse inflicted on the hero.  Mitchum could get the s—t kicked out of him and still look boss smoking a cigarette; after a thug (director Roman Polanski) graphically slices open Gittes’ nose,  the gumshoe spends a majority of the film with a large and profoundly unsexy nose bandage.

At the time, you’d never mistake Chinatown for a 1940’s relic, though its self-referential nature also kept it out of the 1970s; it may have had one foot in the past, but one foot still covers more territory than nothing.  Watching the movie now, you don’t feel the same disconnect—it’s just old, no qualifiers necessary—you marvel at how it got made in the first place.  It’s a film noir made when no one seemed interested in the genre; it’s every inch a period picture even as its 1970s peers—The Godfather movies notwithstanding—focused more intently on the now;  it has a classic, unshowy style that bucked the vérité hues of a Dog Day Afternoon or a Conversation.

In essence, Chinatown has come full circle.  Nowadays, you’ve got to be a hardcore noir acolyte to spot the in-jokes; it plays like a bonafide classic about a dogged P.I. who gets in way over his head.  It’s got an iconic femme fatale and an even more iconic villain (Faye Dunaway and John Huston, respectively), and Polanski’s fatalistic worldview offers them the last horror we expect.  We’d understand if someone killed Gittes; Polanski knew that it would be far worse to leave him alive but impotent, forever tortured over his inability to stop history—the history that killed the Indians and whipped the slaves, natch—from repeating itself.

Whether its creators realize it or not, Chinatown has become the new origin story.  That happens rarely, and only to the great ones.

I had the pleasure of seeing a restored Chinatown print projected digitally about ten years ago; this Blu-ray looks better.  DP John Alonzo’s work takes on a hazy quality that doesn’t lack for depth of focus or detail.  The 5.1 TrueHD track is also strong, though it’s a little too punchy for a movie like Chinatown.  Better still is the restored monaural TrueHD audio option.

The bad news about the special features: they are identical to the supplements on the 2006 “Centennial” Edition.  The good news: they are all of an exceedingly high quality.  Robert Towne hosts the three-part Water and Power documentary, which looks at William Mulholland (the real-life inspiration for Chinatown‘s Hollis Mulwray); the Chinatown: An Appreciation featurette includes insights from filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and Roger Deakins on the picture’s legacy; and three more Chinatown behind-the-scenes featurettes bring in folk like Robert Evans and Roman Polanski to tell first-hand stories about their production experiences.  Best of all is the commentary track with Towne and Zodiac/Fight Club/The Social Network director (and major Chinatown aficionado) David Fincher.  Fincher’s enthusiasm for the movie is boundless, and he and Towne have a wonderful rapport.  The Blu-ray also tosses in a trailer.

In his 2000 “Great Movies” assessment, Roger Ebert wrote that, “Chinatown was seen as a neo-noir when it was released – an update on an old genre. Now years have passed and film history blurs a little, and it seems to settle easily beside the original noirs. That is a compliment.”

I couldn’t put it any better.  The Blu-ray offers wonderful A/V and solid supplements; this is a great package.

Chinatown streets on April 3rd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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