One of the best noir films ever made, Chinatown is considered by many to be the finest film of the 1970’s. Though filming began without a finished script, screenwriter Robert Towne ended up crafting a truly original story; one that leaves audiences on edge, unsure where the story will take them next. Chinatown also represents a high-water mark in the careers of both lead actor Jack Nicholson and director Roman Polanski.

Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is a slick private detective in 1930’s Los Angeles. One day, a woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) comes to his office and hires Jake to spy on her husband Hollis Mulwray whom she believes is having an affair. Initially, Jake hesitates to take the case, explaining she’s better off not knowing. However, Mulwray is insistent and Jake agrees to take the case. Following Mulwray around for several days, Jake discovers he is chief engineer of the Los Angeles water department. There’s a major drought in the city and Mulwray is at the center of a heated debate over an expensive dam project. Nonetheless, Gittes does his job, with his investigation revealing Mulwray’s paramour. But when Hollis Mulwray turns up dead the next day, and a different woman turns up at his office claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Gittes realizes he’s entangled in a murderous plot.

As Gittes retraces his steps to uncover the plot, he develops a relationship with the real Evelyn. Smart and good looking, Evelyn has a strange detachment to all the goings-on that intrigues Jake. He decides to assist in finding the other woman who was seeing her husband. Jake’s biggest obstacle is that everyone, including Evelyn, seems allergic to the truth. The closer Jake comes to uncovering the truth, the more dangerous things get. When Jake meets Evelyn’s charming, yet sinister father Noah Cross (John Huston) the old man hints at past acts too horrible to ponder. One thing is perfectly clear: Noah Cross, who serves Jake a fish with the head still on for lunch, is not a man you want as your enemy.

Cross, owner of the water company, is planning a scheme to dry up the San Fernando Valley by diverting water away from it, then buy up the land cheaply, and re-divert the water back to the valley. As a result, the property becomes fertile and prices go through the roof. Unfortunately for Hollis Mulwray, he’d figured out the scam and ended up dead. Now, Jake has uncovered the plan too. But the detective still has questions: How does the secretive Evelyn fit into the whole thing? Just who is Mulwray’s mistress?

While there are a few surprises, the main reason Chinatown succeeds is the originality of its premise. Avoiding any of the long established film noir clichés, viewers are treated to one twist after another, right up to the shocking ending that’s like no other, before or since. Chinatown is a film where nothing is as simple as it seems. As is the case with many Roman Polanski films, you must pay close attention as the various layers of the story are peeled back, each layer more intriguing than the last.

Presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, the transfer from a 4K Scan of the 35mm Original Camera Negative, is a solid one. Clarity is good. there are a few moments of minimal softness, likely due to 1970’s film style. Detail is excellent, particularly when it comes to wardrobe. Black levels are well presented. Inky and full, crush isn’t an issue. Filled with muted tones, colors still look good. Blood stands out, offering realistic shades of red. Grain offers a genuinely filmic appearance.

Recycled from a previous release, the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track offers a fine experience. Dialogue, effects, and music come across clean and clear throughout. Fronts are well involved in the presentation, offering a nice musical bloom to Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. However, you’ll find there is very little true surround activity throughout the presentation.

English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are available.

The Two Jakes, which concerns the further adventures of Jack Gittes, is included on its own Blu-ray. One wishes the second film was given a 4K disc too, but it looks and sounds wonderful, and is a nice addon to the package.

The extras are a mix of new and legacy features:

Disc 1: Chinatown Ultra HD Blu-ray

  • NEW!! A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson On Chinatown – Sam Wasson, film historian and bestselling author of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years Of Hollywood, on the importance of the film and its legacy.
  • NEW!! Chinatown Memories – Legendary producer Hawk Koch shares stories from his time as assistant director on the film.
  • NEW The Trilogy That Never Was – Sam Wasson discusses the planned third installment of what would have been a trio of movies featuring the character Jake Gittes.
  • Commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne with David Fincher
  • Water and Power – A three-part feature broken down into The Aqueduct, The Aftermath, and The River & Beyond. Chinatown Screenwriter Robert Towne visits the L.A. Aqueduct for a detailed look at its purpose, history, how it works, the role of the aqueduct in the film, the film’s importance in L.A. period history, the area today, politics, the environmental impact, waste, water conservation, and more.
  • Chinatown: An Appreciation – Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, Roger Deakins, and James Newton Howard give their thoughts on the film.
  • Chinatown: The Beginning and the End – Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, and Producer Robert Evans discuss the origins of the story, the planned trilogy, the history that shaped the story, the writing the script, getting the movie off the ground, disagreements between the crew, changes to the ending, and more.
  • Chinatown: Filming – Discussions include shooting in both studios and on-location, filmmaking techniques and visual style, Gittes’ name, Nicholson’s performance, Polanski’s small part in the film, anecdotes from the set, and more.
  • Chinatown: The Legacy – Polanski, Nicholson, Evans, and Towne share their thoughts on Goldsmith’s score and the picture’s release, success, nominations, and lasting impact.
  • Chinatown: Original Theatrical Trailer

Disc 2: HD Blu-ray

  • My Two Jakes Feature Film
  • Digital Copy
Chinatown (1974)
4.5 Reviewer