You’re dumber than you think I think you are – Roman Polanski’s Chinatown on Blu-ray

I picked up the new Chinatown Blu-ray over the weekend, and felt like I had to say a couple of words on it.

In short, the presentation is fantastic. Paramount’s 100th anniversary celebrations are seeing the studio reissue a number of classic titles in high definition. Earlier in the year we had the beautiful and landmark release of William Wellman’s Wings, and now we have this. While Wings may have a certain charm about it, and the sense of scale is breathtaking, my biggest issue with that release came down to the fact that the movie itself just isn’t very good. It’s the worst kind of obvious “Silent Film”, and pales in comparison to many of its contemporaries. On the other hand Chinatown is quite simply one of the greatest films of all time™ (I’d probably hold the script up alongside that for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid as the finest American one ever written), and an interesting prospect for me personally as I’d never seen it accompanied by extra material. You see, I had the very first DVD release of the film. The only supplement that it came packaged with was the unremarkable The Two Jakes, the ill-advised follow-up directed by a post-Batman height-of-his-fame Jack Nicholson. Having never upgraded to the later special edition of the film on DVD this was my first experience of Chinatown with context-providing, studio-sanctioned, pomo-promo material-esque featurettes and the like. 

As with the Wings disc Chinatown is accompanied by a couple of substantial extra features (well, it was kind of necessary with Wings, given that that film had never actually been released on disc before). At the head of the features sits a brand new appreciation-style retrospective of the film, featuring commentary from, amongst others, Steven Soderbergh and Roger Deakins. The production of Chinatown itself is the sort of thing etched in to Hollywood lore thanks to the likes of Peter Biskind, but this appreciation genuinely feels as though it has something to add to the heaps of praise already passed the films way. A more curious extra is a new 70 minute-long, three-part documentary entitled Water and Power which explores the implications of a more defined municipal works system on a city like Los Angeles. It sounds bizarre, but its actually genuinely engrossing with the sight of a contemporary Robert Towne exploring the massive pipes that feed and water the city genuinely awe-inspiring a sight. The real highlight of the supplementary material though is an audio commentary featuring Towne with David Fincher, with the pair partaking in a two way interview revolving around the movie. The influence of Polanski’s film on a work like Zodiac is retrospectively very clear, but (embarrassingly) it took this screening of the film (with commentary) for that to hit home. 

The transfer of the film is stunning. I tweeted soon after the screening of the film that one of the things that really stood out to me on this viewing of the film was Faye Dunaway’s make-up (see above). It seems to capture that West Coast 30’s glamour to a tee, all sweat and foundation, uncomfortable to the max but necessary for any girl about town. Beads of sweat actually make for a surprising recurrent image throughout the film, with the Los Angeleno heat making for an appropriate visual motif in the face of a story concerning a lack of water. It made for an interesting reading, to say the least. 

Unfortunately Paramount don’t seem to be taking their birthday quite as seriously here in the UK. Neither of the discs mentioned above (Chinatown and Wings) have been released in the UK yet, and while the latter is scheduled for a May release date that seems to be without any of the fabulous extra material. It’s a shame.   

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3 Comments

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  1. The first time I saw Chinatown was on Laserdisc (remember those things?) and it looked pretty terrible. Just watched it on New Year’s Eve on Netflix Instant Watch and it looked pretty terrible too. I just got my Blu in the mail yesterday but I can tell the love that went into this release. Will probably watch it this week at least once.
    Wings is a nice package, but more for historians of film. It’s not a terrific movie and it hasn’t held up as well as some other silents, but it’s classic and it’s impressive it was released at all.

    • I’d certainly agree with you on just about every point. The existing Chinatown DVD looks awful too, this is a real revelation. And yes, I appreciate Wings far more than I actually enjoy it. Like you say though, I’m grateful that it was actually released at all.

  2. Carl Copeland 10/04/2012 — 10:03 pm

    Great summing up of it. It’s my favourite film of the 1970’s, plus along with Midnight Cowboy I consider it the greatest scripted film of all time too. The transfer looks sharp and despite the audio not being the greatest its a fine package overall. Great special features, looking forward to watching them.

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