DVD of the Week – Disc Commentary Track for Chinatown (1974)


By reading my review for The Ghost Writer, one would notice that I am a great fan of Roman Polanski’s films. Chinatown, being his grand opus, is also one of the greatest film noirs of all time and its screenplay, arguably, is the best that was ever written. Trust me, this is not an exaggeration.

In one of his best and quintessential performances, Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, an L.A. private detective who’s hired by one Evelyn Mulwray to find out what her husband is up to. Her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) is chief engineer of Water and Power in the county of L.A. and Gittes follows him everywhere that he goes. Gittes also notices that empty reservoirs are having water dumped through them at night. Gittes is investigating Mulwray’s activities and Mulwray is investigating the water dumping activities that take place at night.

One day, Gittes receives a visit in his office from the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and as he wonders about who’d actually hired him originally, Hollis winds up drowned and dead. The plot thickens.

Gittes begins to snoop around town to uncover who really owns the water and power in L.A., why water is being dumped out at night, how Evelyn is connected to the biggest, richest, meanest person in all of L.A., who had hired him pretending to be Evelyn, and much more.

The story is labyrinthine but always points and moves in a forward direction, and momentum constantly builds. Its screenplay eventually tells a story of greed and corruption on an epic scale, one that’s based on real events, famously dating back to the first couple of decades in the twentieth century. Yes, the story is based on a dark chapter in American history that deals with the shady and corrupt development behind California as a whole.

This film in its entirety is a tour de force; it can even be watched with the sound turned off and the subtitles turned on just because of how gorgeous every shot in the film looks. The details showcasing the time period of the film (the 1930s) are extensive and magnificent: from the old-school architecture, to the cars, to the everyday clothes that separate the social classes entirely on a visual basis, to interior decorations, and to phones and business cards.

All of the performances in the film are magnificent; no one sounds like they’re out of place and everyone’s convincing. Jack Nicholson is brilliant as Jake Gittes, a character that’s the exact opposite of the typical film noir hero, and/or anti-hero. Gittes is not unfortunate, destitute, or an ex convict. Quite the opposite, Gittes was once a police officer operating out of L.A.’s Chinatown, at a time long forgotten and he’s well endowed. He dresses very well, has wonderful manners, and his vocabulary is excellent. Faye Dunaway plays Evelyn as a powerful but deeply scarred individual, one with a terrible past that links the water conspiracy to the powerhouse that owns the county, and whom also is her father, Noah Cross (John Huston). And John Huston is menacing, whenever he’s allowed on screen; his portrayal of Noah Cross is so evil that he’ll be remembered as on of the screen’s best villains.

The commentary track, found in the Centennial Collection 2-disc DVD is recommended mostly for cinephiles. Director David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social Network) and Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne deliver an in-depth analysis of every aspect of the film. They talk of the characters in the film, down to the very details of even the ethnicity of side and supporting characters; the brilliant use of the wound that Gittes receives early in the film that remains with him throughout its duration; the cinematography (Fincher is a skilled cinematographer and so he loves to note the lighting and mise-en-scene of the brilliant shots sprinkled here and there); and the details found pretty much everywhere.

Fincher and Towne refer to all of the details aforementioned and more, and bask in the feelings that the film provides one when viewing it. It makes one want to build a time machine and go back to the period when Chinatown takes place.

This is a terrific time capsule film that mysteriously came from Roman Polanski. I say mysteriously because he, having been born and raised in Poland and at a young age having lost his parents to the Nazis had managed to create one of the most authentic looking, sounding, and feeling American period pieces (and a film noir without doubt!). I suppose that it really doesn’t matter where one’s from, as long as the vision and drive to succeed is authentic. This is a film that succeeds on all levels because it wants to and because it can.

New releases this week: How Do You Know, Skyline, The Tourist, Yogi Bear

10 responses to “DVD of the Week – Disc Commentary Track for Chinatown (1974)

  1. To divert attention from the fact I have yet to see “Chinatown,” I’ll mention that I thought about adding a “Stay Away From This Movie!” capsule to Nir’s post, but trying to pick just one of the four new releases triggered a state of mental paralysis.

    • Well, I’d watched 3 of the 4 movies mentioned above so I’ll do it for you:

      Skyline is boring because nothing happens in it, ever; and it has no ending. The Tourist is boring, uneventful, bland, and entirely predictable from the trailer alone. And I`d only watched half of How Do you Know beause it wasn`t going anywhere interesting. :O)

      • The only good thing about watching “Skyline”- and I mean the ONLY good thing- is that I’ve been able to give a number of my movie-watching friends a good laugh by describing the ending to them, especially the whole brain-sucking thing.

        I’m relieved to know that neither of us has watched “Yogi Bear.”

        • lol
          The main problem with Skyline is that nothing happens from the beginning to the end. And actual action in the film takes place during the end credits and it’s portrayed through 3D animated still images.


  2. Richard Winters

    I’m a big Polanski fan as well. I don’t particularly care what he did in his personal life as we all have some skeletons in the closet. As an artist I think he is a genius. The script for ‘Chinatown’ is rather odd and many studio execs and producers really didn’t get it the first time they read it and they had to read it several times before they understood it. What I like about the movie is the fact that there are certain scenes and images that stay with you. The three that stand out to me are when Nicholson coughs loudly to cover up the fact that he is tearing out an articly in a newspaper at a library. I also remember Polanski playing a thug who cuts Nicholson’s nostril with a knife. Of the course there is also Duanaway hitting her head on the car horn, which happens twice in the movie and is a terrific example of foreshadowing.

  3. Polanski is a rapist and a fugitive from justice. When the US attempt to extradite him from Switzerland in 2009 prompted renewed media attention, I read this article in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-polanski25-2009oct25,0,5115267.story. It quotes extensively from the transcript of the 13 year old victim’s court testimony as well as providing an exhaustive summary of the investigative and legal timeline. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch one of his films since then. I don’t know how long it will be before I can, and I will probably never watch any of the films he made after he fled the country.

    I am simply unable to dissociate the person from the work in this instance.

    I would prefer that the person be a closed topic on this site from here on and I hope everyone who reads this will respect that; in any case, I will not respond further. The work of course remains an open topic.

    • @Helen, have you watched the documentary Polanski: Wanted and Desired? It completely changed my mind about that Polanski had done but luckily, when watching films I don’t see actors and directors, I only see the final product so I can even watch Mel Gibson’s films without problems. As a matter fo fact, I believe that he’s excellent director (Apocalypto is terrific filmmaking) and will continue to watch the films that he’s in or directs.
      Same with Polanski. I’d say that by skipping on The Ghost Writer, you’re greatly missing out. It the closest thing to a Hitchcock film. :O)

      But enough of that. @Richard, I remember the library scene with the sneeze, the “Hey Clyde, who’s the midget?” nose slitting scene, the kid on the swayback horse in the dry canal, and the glasses in the salt water pool. Trully a classic example of old school Hollywood filmmaking that sticks with you for life. :O)

  4. Richard Winters

    Nir, I agree with you completely. I also saw that documentary and it changed my mind as well, which is why I made that statement. I wish now that I hadn’t as I really didn’t want to discuss the case or start anything and will certainly respect Helen’s wishes and not bring it up further. Obviously it’s her perogative to take any position she wants, but I do try to judge a film on its own individual merits and seperate it from the artist because as the late director Robert Altman said his films become like his children who gain a personality of their own and will eventually outgrow the person who created them. So in that context ‘Chinatown’ is a great movie and your comments Nir were right on target.

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