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Chinatown

New on DVD

Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., April 13, 2012

Spring Screening

Chinatown

Paramount, $26.98 (Blu-ray)

It's about time Roman Polanski's 1974 film made it to Blu-ray. The director's neo-noir love/hate letter to Los Angeles circa 1937 is nothing if not resoundingly contemporary, what with the current worries – not only here, in Texas, but everywhere in the world it seems – about water, power, and the misuses and abuses thereof. That's the hook that hangs what is arguably Jack Nicholson's last great role prior to calcifying into the mercurial self-parody that he has, in his latter years, become.

Nicholson's performance here as the hapless, literally clueless private eye Jake Gittes is a thing of grave, comedic beauty; he spends half the film with an unflatteringly oversized bandage on his nose, courtesy of one of Roman Polanski's creepy-crawliest cameos (second only to his brief but unforgettable appearance in Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula aka Andy Warhol's Dracula). That makes Gittes look clownish, but there's little in Robert Towne's rightfully celebrated (and Oscar-winning) screenplay to actually chuckle at, although Nicholson's pitch-perfect portrayal of the PI struggling to make sense of obfuscation atop lie atop some serious moral turpitude does elicit a kind of mordant inner chuckle.

Chinatown, with its nihilistic depiction of, well, everything, was not a project Polanski was overjoyed to take on, seeing as how just four years earlier his wife – the actress Sharon Tate – had been butchered by the Manson family. "I wasn't very keen on returning to Los Angeles," the director says in one of seven featurettes included here. "It was for me a job more than a work of passion or art." Miraculously, Polanski delivered a masterpiece, one of the great cinematic dissections of Los Angelean madness. John Huston's scheming, amoral transgressor Noah Cross remains one of the movies' most memorable (and, at the time, shocking) connivers; Faye Dunaway is a glorious wreck as Evelyn Mulwray; and Jerry Goldsmith's mournful trumpet score, recorded in just nine days at producer Robert Evans' 11th-hour behest, evokes both the film's noir-ish roots and the sordid, hopeless finale throughout.

Evans, speaking of Chinatown's now-classic status, quotes a line from Towne's script: "Old whores and houses become respectable with time." It's a stretch to call the film "respectable," I think. It still packs a queasy wallop nearly four decades on and, in this immaculately spruced-up Blu-ray version, doesn't look a day over yesterday. (And as for the film's commentary track featuring Towne and director David Fincher, it's one of the best and most factoid-saturated I've yet come across.) Forget The Two Jakes. This is the only one that matters.

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