When John A. Alonzo, ASC, photographed Chinatown for director Roman Polanski in 1974, he felt that the film represented an artistic peak in his career up until that point — and his sentiments were confirmed by the Academy when he was rewarded with an Oscar for his work. In the years since, the Raymond Chandler-esque period piece (it’s set in 1930s Los Angeles) has only grown in stature and has come to represent one of the high points of the New Hollywood of the ’70s. In the film, Jack Nicholson plays witty private detective Jake Gittes, a smooth operator whose world is shaken by a case that brings him romance and a chilling confrontation with evil. It’s a story that works as both intimate character study and sweeping epic, as screenwriter Robert Towne integrates Gittes’ personal story with a historically astute condemnation of the pillaging of Los Angeles’ natural resources.
It’s also a movie that feels surprisingly modern, even 30 years after its release and more than 70 years since the era in which it takes place. One of the many interesting choices Polanski and Alonzo made was to avoid any overt stylization when replicating the period. And although the costumes and production design evoke classic noirs such as The Maltese Falcon, the lighting and framing are unobtrusive and shot in a contemporary style. (According to one of the DVD’s featurettes, Alonzo replaced original cinematographer Stanley Cortez, ASC, after producer Robert Evans decided his approach was too old-fashioned.) Alonzo avoided diffusion to give the film a greater sense of immediacy and shot a great deal of Chinatown with a 40mm anamorphic lens to replicate human perception. The use of the anamorphic frame also allows viewers to see both action and reaction in the same shot, an effective visual approach in a film where the characters are constantly trying to decipher each other’s lies.
Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition of Chinatown contains three documentaries. “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End” is a 20-minute featurette in which Polanski, Nicholson, Towne and producer Evans comment on the project’s genesis. As one might expect from its title, the interviews on the 25-minute “Chinatown: Filming” focus on production, while the shorter (just under 10 minutes) “Chinatown: The Legacy” explores the film’s postproduction process and release. A theatrical trailer completes the supplementary section.
Chinatown was designed to be the first part of a California-themed trilogy, but the commercial failure of the 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, hindered further expansion of the storyline, which is a shame because The Two Jakes is every bit Chinatown’s equal, a complex and emotionally resonant meditation on regret and memory. Working from another Towne script, Nicholson directed as well as starred in the film, with his thorough understanding of Gittes permeating each of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC’s atmospherically lit images. Nicholson and Zsigmond also abandoned the ’Scope aspect ratio of Polanski’s film in favor of the 1.85 frame, an appropriate choice given the constricted world that Gittes inhabits.
The Two Jakes catches up with Gittes many years after Chinatown, finding a detective who is more successful, less open and still recovering from the events of the previous movie. As a new case unexpectedly dredges up unpleasant memories, Gittes begins to burrow deeper into his own troubled past. It’s a somber, bittersweet film, but Zsigmond’s vibrant palette and Towne’s sardonic dialogue keep it from becoming depressing — to the contrary, The Two Jakes may be one of the liveliest stories about loss ever committed to celluloid.
Aside from a trailer, the only supplement on The Two Jakes is an excellent 18-minute featurette called “Jack on Jakes,” in which Nicholson comments on various aspects of the film’s preparation and execution. In addition to the interview material, the documentary includes footage of Nicholson, Zsigmond and others who were present during the making of the picture.
Both Chinatown and The Two Jakes are presented in anamorphic transfers with 5.1 surround, and the Chinatown disc in particular is gorgeous, with vivid colors and subtle contrasts. A bit less care seems to have gone into the occasionally uneven Two Jakes reissue, though it does make greater use of the surround channels than its predecessor. Both discs contain crisp, clear sound mixes and are vital additions to any cinephile’s library. One is an acknowledged classic and the other is an overlooked masterpiece, but each combines the visual elegance of great painting with the verbal dexterity and thematic richness of great literature.