L.A. NOIR Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Credit: Everett Collection

As more and more Hollywood classics trickle onto Blu-ray, movie buffs have become obsessed with the back-catalog titles that are still missing. One that’s always hovered near the top of any wish list is Chinatown (1974, R, 2 hrs., 10 mins.). Well, good news. It’s finally here…and it looks amazing. Over the years, I’ve probably watched Roman Polanski’s hard-boiled L.A. noir a dozen times. Each time I do, Robert Towne’s flawless Oscar-winning detective story reveals unexpected layers of complexity and evil. It’s one of those rare puzzle-box mysteries where, even if you can’t work it all out, you trust that it all makes sense. And when you do finally solve it — for me, around the fifth viewing — it fills you with the giddy sense of accomplishment you get from polishing off a stubborn New York Times Sunday crossword. If that makes the film sound like work, I don’t mean it that way. It’s a kinky, sinister kick, mainly due to Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance ever. Having just finished The Last Detail, and with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on deck the following year, Nicholson was at the height of his ’70s run. As L.A. cop–turned–private eye Jake Gittes, he’s smooth, cocky, and also a bit slow on the uptake. Hired to investigate the fishy death of a water-department engineer, he seems to get everything wrong before realizing that he’s being set up. What makes the movie such a wild ride is all of the wrong turns and blind alleys he’s led down before he stumbles into an oedipal freak show. As with any memorable detective, his Achilles’ heel is a woman. And not just any woman, but Faye Dunaway’s sultry and secretive widow, Evelyn Mulwray — the kind of smoky knockout who can’t be trusted and who has been catnip to gumshoes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe for ages. Still, she’s harmless compared with her creepy father, an amoral real estate mogul played by a deliciously depraved John Huston. Since Polanski is the man behind the camera orchestrating it all, the film’s iconic downbeat ending feels inevitable. It’s also the kind of finale that no one could get away with today. As for the EXTRAS, they’re great — especially a commentary crammed with anecdotes and backstory from Towne and Chinatown fanatic David Fincher — but they’re not new. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, especially since I’ve been waiting for this Blu-ray for so long, but some fresh bonus goodies would have been welcome. Oh, well. To quote the film’s famous last line: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. A

  • Movie
  • 130 minutes