The extras on Roman Polanski's noir classic feature "as little as possible," in J.J. Gittes' famous phrase.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 26, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Paramount; anamorphic widescreen (original 2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Interview featurette, original trailer

When I first saw "Chinatown" as a teenager, I came away hating it and feeling awful. I really believed things would work out all right for private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and the edgy widow, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), and I couldn't stand it that evil, incestuous tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) emerged triumphant. Of course, I was young and innocent back then. I probably believed things would work out all right for America too.

"Chinatown" is a landmark for many reasons. It launched the film-noir revival and turned Nicholson from a rising star into a full-fledged Tinseltown legend. It is masterful filmmaking from beginning to end, and probably represents the high-water mark in three distinctive careers, those of Nicholson, director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne. Indeed, as Polanski, Towne and producer Robert Evans all agree in the present-day interviews included on this disc, no studio today would even consider a leisurely, convoluted thriller, set in 1937, about the history of corruption underlying water and electricity in Los Angeles.

But the greatness of "Chinatown," unappreciated by my adolescent self, lies not in its cynical view of the California dream (that's too easy) but in its fatalistic, even tragic conception of America and indeed of human nature. Huston's Cross may be a vile monster, but he is also a vital and generous man with a sweeping vision of the future. Nicholson's Gittes, who like all noir heroes is damaged and emotionally retarded, in the end has no one to blame but himself. He learns the truth about Cross' plans to bring suburban desolation to the orange groves and open desert north of L.A., but the truth does not make him free. He isn't quite capable of returning Evelyn's love, and his intrepid curiosity in fact destroys her, leaving him alone on a crowded Chinatown street murmuring, "As little as possible" (what he should have done, that is). "Chinatown" is genre film elevated to allegory. History proceeds without us, and we get occasional, bitter glimpses of its workings. That's closer to wisdom than to cynicism.

Any film fan should gratefully buy this disc for the beautifully detailed widescreen transfer and outstanding Dolby Digital sound, but Paramount could and should have done better with the extras. There's no directorial commentary track, for example, and Nicholson either declined to participate or wasn't asked. The interview featurette has some intriguing moments but doesn't add up to much, and Polanski's remarks about scenes he'd shoot differently now only underscore the uncomfortable truth that he isn't half the artist today he was in 1974.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Movies Roman Polanski