Chinatown Blu-ray Review

Many films have been labeled “ahead of its time” upon initial theatrical release but what can we say when those films eventually feel dated as time passes? As a fan of films from every decade since the early 1900s, I don’t automatically like something more just because a film gets the prestigious labeling of being a classic. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is considered a classic that many cherish dearly, but I don’t think the film has aged that well.

There is a reason why the original three-minute long trailer of Chinatown reveals practically nothing about the story. To explain the story in lengthy detail, the movie is going to be ruined for the audience. All you need to know is that Chinatown is a film noir mystery that takes place in Los Angeles during 1937, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray hires detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to see if her husband is cheating on her, this woman turns out to not be Evelyn Mulwray once Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and the bizarre identity-swapping situation is enough to make Gittes want to investigate further.

As controversial as Chinatown was considered in the 1970s, the movie is still a very typical film noir. Without getting into a lengthy interpretation of what makes a movie a “film noir,” a typical film noir is a 1940s stylish Hollywood crime drama centered on a detective and a femme fatale in which the detective:

a. is hired to solve a case
b. snoops around
c. asks questions
d. (repeat steps “b” and “c” over and over till the end of the movie)
e. discovers the shocking truth at the climax

I’m not a fan of typical film noirs nor am I enthusiastic about a film that spends most of the movie’s length by having characters asking and explaining repetitively rather than showing actions to move the story along. Don’t just talk about what happened, show it! Or at least balance out the “ask and explain” scenes with many scenes that involve intense conflict as was done with the masterpiece L.A. Confidential.

I have nothing against film noirs, but I guess I do prefer the non-traditional ones. There have been many awesome and unique film noirs that have deviated from this traditional pattern such as Night of the Hunter, Scarlet Street, Nightmare Alley, L.A. Confidential, Cape Fear (both versions), Blade Runner, Brazil, Purple Noon, Alphaville, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Dark City, The Big Lebowski, and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Chinatown’s praise by critics revolve around three aspects: One, when Chinatown was released in the 1970s, people were impressed how it was like a real old-school film noir – similar to all the nostalgia hype surrounding 2011’s The Artist in which that film was like a real old-school silent film. Two, Chinatown had outstanding performances from Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Everybody loves Jack Nicholson – one of the greatest actors from the 1970s to 1990s. So putting Nicholson in a film will always increase respect for a film. Three, the main twists in the film were controversial and shocking in the 1970s. By today’s standards, they are pretty tame. Without giving the secrets away, you can find these supposedly shocking twists in any film or soap opera nowadays.

I was hoping that third time’s the charm after watching Chinatown again but I still have not fallen in love with this film. When I was 13 years old, I first rented Chinatown on VHS and I remember thinking, “okay, I don’t know what’s going on. That actress is really weird. The nose slicing scene is nasty. Why is Jack Nicholson acting so calm and not flipping out in his entertaining way as he did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? But, eww, the ending is gross.” When I was 25 years old, I rented the DVD and I remember thinking, “I still don’t know what’s going on. Faye Dunaway is really scary. Wow, Polanski played the goon that slices Nicholson’s nose. The bandage on Nicholson’s face is really distracting. But that ending is funny.” So after watching Chinatown for the third time the other day at the age of 35, I was thinking, “finally, now I know what’s going on…the story is similar to Johnny Depp’s Rango! How is it possible that Dunaway was so attractive in the late 1960s but she transformed into such a creepy actress right before Chinatown? Nicholson is so young. Hey, the villain from Big Trouble In Little China is playing Dunaway’s butler! And the ending is too melodramatic for me.”

While I unfortunately don’t perceive this film as the perfect masterpiece as many others do, there are still plenty of memorable scenes that make Chinatown a very good film.

Paramount is on fire! I’m amazed how this company continuously releases quality Blu-rays of old films. Even their most controversially reviewed Blu-ray – My Fair Lady – had striking video quality. Released as 1080p 2.35:1, Chinatown has never looked this good on video. With slight cinematic grain, the colors are totally natural and the image is bright without sacrificing the film’s dark tone. Considering the age of the film, softness and dull shows up throughout the movie, but the majority of the scenes (including interior or dark ones) are overall quite impressive. The outdoor day scenes are reference quality – making those Jack Nicholson scenes seem unreal in a good way. It’s hard to believe he is so old now when his young self projects out of the Blu-ray image.

Don’t expect to be blown away by the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. For a dialogue-driven film, the quality itself is pretty good, but Chinatown is the type of movie in which you have to listen carefully to every line of Robert Towne’s screenplay. If you miss even one line of dialogue, that could make the whole movie hard to follow. Even with reasonably good clarity, the audio mix sometimes felt flat and dialogue occasionally sounded a bit muffled – there were two times that I had to rewind the Blu-ray to listen to lines of dialogue again to fully process what was said. I don’t think viewers will miss out on the lack of surrounds but there are some seat-jumping scenes that involve water and gunshots. The score is mixed well with the speech and sound effects, and there is no audible hiss from any of the speakers. Overall, this audio mix was well-done but could have been better.

English Dolby TrueHD Mono, French Dolby Digital Mono, Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono, and Spanish Dolby Digital Mono audio choices, as well as English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also included.

Paramount has provided plenty of interesting extras on this Blu-ray. While all the documentaries are insightful, the commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne with David Fincher is the highlight of the extras. I would have been satisfied if we only got this commentary as an extra, so all the other featurettes are just icing on the cake.

– Commentary
– Water and Power (Widescreen, 1:17:50)
– Chinatown: An Appreciation (Widescreen, 00:26:15)
– Chinatown: The Beginning and the End (Fullscreen,00:19:28)
– Chinatown: Filming (Fullscreen, 00:25:35)
– Chinatown: The Legacy (Fullscreen, 00:09:37)
– Theatrical Trailer (Widescreen)

If you haven’t seen Chinatown, I’m not going to be the one to ruin the surprises for you. If you read too much more about the film, you are asking for a mystery to be spoiled. The original trailer is pretty spoiler-free so if you have never seen the film and you like what you see in the trailer, check out this movie. For people who have never seen Chinatown, this movie is a must-see rental. Fans of Chinatown should definitely purchase this respectable Blu-ray!