The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Avengers
DVD Playback
Anatomy of a Murder
The Last Temptation
ASC Close-Up
Chinatown (1974)
Blu-ray Edition
2.40:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby True HD 5.1 & 1.0 Monaural
Paramount, $26.98

“You may think you know what you're dealing with, but you don't,” cautions sinister tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) when discussing his estranged daughter, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), with hard-nosed detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). The warning is not lost on Gittes, who has had his own troubles with Mrs. Mulwray. In fact, the more he investigates the mysterious woman, the more he finds himself not only getting in over his head, but also nearly losing his nose.

It is the late summer of 1937 when an actress (Diane Ladd) posing as Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to tail her husband, Hollis, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Dept. of Water and Power and find out the name of the female he has been seeing. Gittes closes in and gets photos of Hollis and a young blonde. When the photos cause a stir, two unusual things happen: the real Evelyn appears in Gittes' office demanding to know why he claims she hired him, and the man in question, Hollis, is found dead in a city reservoir drain.

Angry and embarrassed that he has been duped, Gittes will not be fooled twice. The detective smells a rat scurrying somewhere between the mysterious widow, her wealthy father and the odd coincidence that the city's chief water engineer has drowned in the middle of a drought. As Gittes gets closer to the truth, he uncovers a dangerous mystery, grand-scale corruption and the real possibility his involvement will inadvertently doom an innocent person.

Director Roman Polanski saw Chinatown not only as an homage to the Hollywood film noir traditions and the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also as a cautionary tale mirroring the contemporary distrust of establishment and growing pessimism rampant in America in the early 1970s. Polanski wanted to tap some period motifs of noir, but he also wanted to use an anamorphic canvas, in vivid color, to give them a more contemporary feel. Unfortunately, his first choice of cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, ASC, proved to be taking too much time on the set, and Polanski soon replaced him with John A. Alonzo, ASC. Alonzo and Polanski worked out a style favoring beige and orange light, which gave the frame a gentle period flair while still managing an edgy, contemporary look. Alonzo earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the picture.

Chinatown has had an impressive life on DVD, thanks to standard-def presentations in 1999, 2007 and 2009, but this new Blu-ray trumps them all. Offering more detail in low-light sequences, the image presentation here is genuinely film-like, with occasionally minimal grain evident. While there are minor instances of DNR, colors appear vivid, and black levels have excellent depth. This meticulous transfer seems utterly faithful to the best-looking film prints. The original monaural mix is clean and well presented, while the 5.1 audio option carefully separates atmospheric sound effects and Jerry Goldsmith's handsome score in an always appropriate and immersive way.

The supplements all come from previous DVD releases. From the 2009 release comes an excellent audio commentary by screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher. Also, there is an 80-minute three-part historical documentary, Water and Power; and an odd 26-minute segment (An Appreciation) that features contemporary directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce; cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, and others explaining their feelings about the film. From the 2007 edition come three informative segments with Polanski, Nicholson, Towne and producer Robert Evans that total nearly an hour, as well as the film's theatrical trailer.

This absorbing and intricate tapestry of greed and corruption, set on the sun-drenched streets of Depression-era Los Angeles, is often cited as one of the most complex and intelligent films to come out of the American New Wave. Towne's complicated script is perfectly realized by Polanski, who sheds light upon the city's darker corners and chillingly reminds us, as Cross says, that “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, in the right place, they are capable of anything.”

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