Written by El Conquistadorko
Chinatown may not the be the best movie ever made—director Roman Polanski doesn't count it as his personal favorite (that honor goes to The Pianist)—but it's certainly among the most compelling films in cinematic history. Released in 1974, the movie actually looks like it was made when it takes place, in Los Angeles circa the Great Depression. It started as an idea by screenwriter Robert Towne, who attended a city hall meeting on a disastrous dam project and got the idea of penning a noir script based on the essence of LA life: water.
Towne envisioned a mystery centering on ex-cop Jake Gittes, who left the force after getting into some kind of unspecified hot water in Chinatown, which Towne figured would make a great script title and mysterious metaphor for the dark forces that really run LA and get away with monstrous crimes in broad daylight—like building a city on stolen water from the Owens River Valley. That particular historical conspiracy serves as the backdrop for what begins as a simple divorce case, when Gittes is hired by someone claiming to be the Evelyn Cross Mulwray, wife of a prominent water engineer, Hollis Mulwray, who suspects her husband of infidelity.
When Gittes leaks photos of the engineer frolicking with a young girl, the real wife, played by Faye Dunaway, confronts him with his mistake. From there, the movie becomes murkier, as Gittes struggles to find out who really hired him, an investigation that quickly turns into a murder probe, as the water engineer is found dead in a dry riverbed. When police determine he actually drowned, the suspense grows and eventually pits Gittes against just about the entire LA power structure, which is ultimately personified by land baron Noah Cross, as chillingly portrayed by John Huston. Crucial to the mystery is the relationship between Cross, Evelyn Mulwray and her husband's “girlfriend,” a puzzle that Gittes solves in one of the most intense bitch-slapping sessions ever put on film.
How Gittes solves the mystery just in time to helplessly stand by as its tragic consequences unfold is a story best left to the film itself, which has never looked as good as it does on this special collector's edition. Amazingly, digital technology does nothing to erode the beautiful Panavision color scheme that (along with Towne's dutiful use of actual, well-preserved LA landmarks like Echo Park) makes the movie look like it was actually shot in the 1930s. Screenwriter Towne apparently realized it was possible to shoot a movie set forty years earlier on location in LA when he read a book published in 1970 called Raymond Chandler's LA, which featured contemporary photographs of architecture dating from that era.
When production of the movie began, Polanski and Towne still hadn't agreed on whether any of the action would take place in Chinatown. In his original script, Towne used Chinatown simply as a metaphor, but Polanski insisted at least one scene had to take place there, and eventually Polanski convinced Towne that the movie's climax should occur in Chinatown. Meanwhile, Towne and Polanski argued well into the filming of the movie, just what should take place in that final scene. Suffice it to say that Polanski's instincts were right on the mark, as Chinatown has one of the most disturbingly and perfectly noir endings of any movie.
Those particular details are just a few of the informational nuggets that come from a trio of bonus featurettes included on this one-disc release. The most interesting, “Chinatown, the Beginning and End” features interviews with Polanski, Nicholson, and Towne, although notably not Dunaway. It reveals that the film (in its inception if not its actual content) was really a buddy picture: Towne, who won the only Oscar for the film, was a roommate in the early 1970s with Nicholson, whose character, Gittes, was named after mutual friend Harry Gittes, an artist and eventual Hollywood producer who went on to produce About Schmidt, which Nicholson starred in.
Nicholson also happened to be friends with Polish director Roman Polanski, whom Nicholson asked to direct Chinatown. Polanski wasn't happy about returning to LA, because a few years earlier, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered by acolytes of hippie cult-leader Charles Manson. Fortunately, Polanski was impressed enough by Towne's script to accept Nicholson's invitation, and after a half-year rewrite session with Towne, they began filming.
The rest, as they say is history, and even though it took 35 years for a collector's edition DVD of one of the best movies in the history of cinema to finally be released—and it doesn't even have a director's commentary—it's worth the wait.