Paramount Home Entertainment finally upgraded its so-so 1999 release of the neo-noir film, unveiling significantly better images, audio and extras on Chinatown: Special Collector's Edition. The 13-minute interview extra of the first DVD has been replaced by a solid Laurent Bouzereau documentary about the making of the film and its legacy.
For a film of this stature -- made by some of the top creative talent of modern cinema -- you'd expect an all-out effort from the studio. Say with Robert Towne's legendary screenplay as an extra. And a commentary or two -- Nicholson would do a great job, as he did on "The Passenger." Towne seems more than eager to talk about "Chinatown."
What about separate extras on Anthea Sylbert's costumes, Richard Sylbert's production design, John A. Alonzo's cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith's famous last-minute score. The locations (then and now). A look at the actual events that inspired this take on L.A.'s great water ripoff. Maybe a history of noir after the film noir era. Docus on any or all of the big guns that worked on "Chinatown"?
Want to experience that DVD? Don't we all.
To be fair, Bouzereau's hourlong "Chinatown" documentary does cover a lot of that ground, at least to some extent. The docu, broken into three chapters, has the cooperation of all the major players except for Faye Dunaway (She did turn out for the latest "Network" DVD.)
Polanski, Nicholson and Towne all roll out to praise each other and remember the (mostly) good times they had putting "Chinatown" together. Comments from their producer pal Robert Evans' appear to be recycled from the 1999 disc.
The inevitable clashes have long since been smoothed over. "Roman was right," screenwriter Towne says of some unwelcome help he got from the director in ending the detective story. "I'm glad he prevailed." Dunaway took no shit from Polanski when it came to the way her fashionable and exotic Mrs. Mulwray looked in every scene. There's a great tale of Polanski smashing Nicholson's portable TV because the actor disappeared to watch the Lakers during filming.
Towne's most famous screenplay was crafted for its star: Towne says he couldn't have written the part of adultery specialist J.J. "Jake" Gittes without having known Nicholson as a close friend and roommate. Nicholson's savory screen persona is as good as it gets here.
" 'Chinatown' stands for the futility of good intentions," Towne says. The story was intended as the first installment of a trilogy about L.A. from 1937 ("Chinatown") to 1953 (the year no-fault divorce came to California). The films were meant to run in real time, with the number of years between productions equal to time elapsed in the stories. (Instead, we got the half-hearted "The Two Jakes," which Paramount also revived on DVD this week. There's a two-fer DVD for Gittes completists.)
Polanski, who kicks off the "Chinatown" interviews, says he hadn't seen the movie in ages. After watching it in preparation for the DVD, he felt he'd rediscovered his own film. "Those people did a really good job," he says proudly, seeming a bit surprised at the quality of his classic.
"Chinatown" looks clean and sharp, with L.A.-bright colors and up-close-and-personal skin tones. You can almost feel Gittes sweating it out. For a film from that dicey film-stock era of the mid-1970s, there's little haze or unavoidable softness. The 5.1 audio is pretty good, nothing special, but the redone stereo doesn't seem worth the bother.
There's a crappy trailer from the theatrical release that pushes the action scenes, suggesting that Paramount didn't know what it had on its hands.
Second opinion: DVD Savant testifies about the "Chinatown" plot in his review.