[box cover]

Chinatown

Paramount Home Video

Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston

Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski


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In the halls of film academies and the pages of screenwriting tomes around the world, Robert Towne's screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown has somehow earned exalted status as a perfect specimen; a template for structure, character, and detail. In course, Polanski's film has been heralded as a classic and the standard-bearer for all subsequent entries into the mystery genre.

This golden reputation, sadly, is undeserved. Not that Chinatown isn't a solid film — especially compared to the half-ass dreck populating the video store shelves alongside it. However, for all its obvious crafts, Chinatown is missing a couple of crucial components for which Towne must be held summarily responsible.

Jack Nicholson stars in Chinatown as Jake Gittes, a high-priced private eye in desert-like, drought-stricken 1930s Los Angeles. Although he scolds his assistants for lacking the grace their sensitive work demands, Gittes is clumsy, crude, unobservant, and, as it turns out, easily fooled. When Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) employs him to investigate her philandering husband, it's just bread and butter to Gittes as he photographs Mr. Hollis Mulwray — L.A.'s politically-reviled water commissioner — on an affectionate day out with a young girl. Case closed.

But when Gittes' pictures hit the front page, he gets a surprise: the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up at his office and slaps him with a lawsuit. To save his reputation, Gittes tries to determine who set him up and is faced with a municipal conspiracy of Byzantine proportions, a couple of murders, and some other sordid details he never expected.

While Towne is fully adept at developing strong characters and the mechanics of a believable mystery, he does leave Chinatown bereft of a simply mandatory quality: empathy. The water-conspiracy at the heart of Gittes' investigation is not intrinsically interesting. So why do we care? Presumably because we're invested in Gittes journey, as it were. Not so. Although Nicholson is great, Gittes' personality lacks the dynamics of a good hero — or even an anti-hero. His drive, initially, is to save a reputation so dubious that the stakes are non-existent. I suppose later in the film we're supposed to care because of the developing relationship between Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray, but Towne's script skirts so shallowly and enigmatically around emotion that it feels downright pointless to even broach romance as a subject.

Then there's the whole metaphor surrounding the film's title, of "Chinatown" as a place where nothing is as it seems. Although this phrase is bandied about a few times in the first two hours, and Gittes' makes brief reference to something vague that happened there, when the characters finally end up in Chinatown and the place wreaks its toll them, it's totally undeveloped and lacks resonance. I. And that's a shame, because there is some potent drama to be mined. But Polanski (who Towne says drafted this ending) dwells coldly instead on a dull metaphor with no frame-of-reference for the audience.

In technical terms, however, Chinatown deserves its many accolades. John A. Alonzo's cinematography is superb, and Polanski knows how to wring tension out of the most innocuous scene. It's jut too bad he can't make us care.

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mix or the original 2.0 mono soundtrack. Includes a retrospective documentary that features interviews with Polanski, Towne, and producer Robert Evans.

— Gregory P. Dorr



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