DVD of the Week – Disc Commentary Track for Chinatown (1974)
by NIR SHALEV
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.