For many, Chinatown epitomizes the peak of Seventies Hollywood filmmaking and is perhaps the finest neo-noir ever made

DVD Watch

Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount, $14.99

For many, Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski from Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay, epitomizes the peak of Seventies Hollywood filmmaking and perhaps the finest neo-noir ever made. Yet according to the four documentary featurettes on this new special edition, the movie almost didn't get made. Jack Nicholson, Towne's former roommate, had to convince maverick producer Robert Evans, then the head of Paramount, to take a chance on an unconventional period piece that hinged on a family tree gone haywire ("she's my sister ... she's my daughter") and a byzantine water scandal in drought-ridden Los Angeles.

Evans had an unusual provision in his contract with Paramount that enabled him to produce independent projects, and he insisted on the self-exiled Polanski as the director. Polanski had left Hollywood following Charles Manson's notorious 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. The 1973 filming of the L.A.-based Chinatown marked his first return to the city (five years later he'd flee for good after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor). The shoot was often less than harmonious. The director's public fights with stars Nicholson and Faye Dunaway rattled the production staff, and a disagreement between Polanski and Towne delayed the scripting of the legendary final scene – "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" – until after the completion of three-fourths of the film.

Framed by new interviews with Polanski, Towne, Nicholson, and Evans, the four original features tell the story of Chinatown through their own distinct voices. (Dunaway is noticeably missing from the proceedings.) But the lack of a commentary track limits the historical value of this new edition. More than learning that Nicholson performed his own stunt in the reservoir flood scene, hearing him relive the moment while the scene flashes across the screen would have further enhanced the experience. This latest Chinatown DVD incarnation lacks the bells and whistles of other collector's editions; that said, the four outstanding short documentaries more than justify the affordable price.

Also Out Now

The Hoax (Miramax, $29.99): The excellent film version of Clifford Irving's personal account of one of the great literary hoaxes of the 20th century, the "autobiography" of Howard Hughes.

A Clockwork Orange (Warner Home Video, $26.98): The definitive remastered two-disc edition of Stanley Kubrick's 1972 ultraviolent classic of excess, complete with behind-the-scenes features.

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