Chinatown: Paramount Presents (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

A private detective hired to expose an adulterer in 1930s Los Angeles finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder.

June 13, 2024 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Quite possibly one of the most respected films to come around in the last 50 years, Chinatown holds up as well now as it did when it came out in 1974. Starring a then “star” on the rise, Jack Nicholson and an already established female lead, Faye Dunaway, Chinatown wasn’t exactly an ‘art house’ movie. Mostly it’s associated with director Roman Polanski who also helmed the critically acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski was banned from the United States after the Sharon Tate murders and has yet to return (despite winning the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003). Nevertheless, he plays a small part in this film and it’s probably the most memorable scene from this movie (when Nicholson’s Gittes’ gets his nose sliced). Among the other cast members is the great director John Huston (father to actress Angelica) who plays the villain or tycoon Noah Cross. Chinatown’s roots a movie aren’t new to Hollywood, as it deals with greed, power, money and corruption.

Set in the 1930′s, Chinatown focuses on the still growing town of Los Angeles. Small time private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired on by a “Mrs. Mulrae” to investigate if her husband is cheating on her. Of course, he finds more out than he wants to. It’s not long before another Mrs. Mulrae shows up, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) and things start to go from bad to worse. It seems that after a little more investigating, Jake starts finding out that there’s more to this whole ordeal than someone cheating on someone’s wife. The city of Los Angeles is between a desert and an ocean, so water is a problem. We learn that tycoon’s are buying up all the supposedly “worthless” land outside of Los Anglesey in the Valley…but why? The citizens of Los Angeles are voting on a bill to bring the water to Los Angeles, but this won’t happen. By bringing the water to the Valley instead, it will force the city to grow that way, hence all that once worthless land is now gold.

With great performances by nearly everyone in its cast, Chinatown is a movie that isn’t really made anymore. Even in the retrospective interviews, it’s said that if the movie were made today, it wouldn’t be the same. Maybe it’s the atypical Hollywood ending, maybe it’s the classic film noir attitude. One thing is, for sure, as Jake Gittes, this cemented Nicolson’s reputation for not only a movie star, but as a leading man as well. Faye Dunaway, as always puts in another great performance and it was interesting to hear Polanski’s comments about how methodical she was with her part (it was almost scary). Chinatown has certainly never looked and sounded better, so if you haven’t already treated yourself to one of the finer films around…this is the best way to experience it.

Video: How does it look?

If you’re going to put out a 4K version of one of the most critically-acclaimed films in the last half a century, know what you’re doing. Thankfully Paramount does and, simply put, Chinatown looks gorgeous.  The brownish hues don’t suffer from aliasing, the contrast is strong and consistent and though there’s a bit of an issue with some banding – it doesn’t really detract from the overall image quality.  Detail has been improved ad this 2.39:1 HEVC 4K image showcases everything from the textures on clothes to the taped bandage on Nicholson’s nose.  The good far outweighs the bad in regard to how this appears on screen. It’s a worthwhile and notable upgrade.

Audio: How does it sound?

Don’t let the back of the box fool you, though it says Dolby TrueHD, it’s a pretty thin-sounding 5.1 remix.  For purists, there’s a restored mono soundtrack as well.  And, to be totally honest, the mono is probably the way to go on this one.  While the 5.1 mix sounds a bit more spacious, it doesn’t really offer anything new in terms of sound or acoustics.  The film is about as dialogue-driven as they come and I don’t think viewers will miss out on the lack of surrounds.  Heck, maybe this is a good thing, listen to Robert Towne’s screenplay as opposed to craning your head around to see where the gun shots are coming from!

Supplements: What are the extras?

Disc One (4K)

  • A State of Mind: Author Sam Wasson On Chinatown – The first of three new features, this one showcases Sam Wasson, a film historian and bestselling author of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years Of Hollywood, on the importance of the film and its legacy.   
  • Chinatown Memories –Next up we have legendary producer Hawk Koch as he shares stories from his time as assistant director on the film.  
  • The Trilogy That Never Was – Finally we have Sam Wasson as he discusses the planned third installment of what would have been a trio of movies featuring the character Jake Gittes. 
  • Audio Commentary Acclaimed screenwriter Robert Towne is joined by filmmaker David Fincher as they laud their praise on the film.  There’s discussion about the title sequence, the script, the story and of course…Roman Polanski.
  • Water and Power – This three-part “documentary” is essentially a trio of featurettes. We find Robert Towne as he visits the aqueduct and we get a bit of history on it, how it functions and its role in the film.

    • The Aqueduct
    • The Aftermath
    • The River & Beyond
  • Chinatown: An Appreciation – This features filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, Roger Deakins and James Newton Howard as they discuss their initial impressions on the film, how it holds up with subsequent viewings and the overall film and how its stood the test of time.
  • Chinatown: The Beginning and the End – We find Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne and Robert Evans candidly discuss the story’s origins, the actual history and the process of writing the script.
  • Chinatown: Filming – is just that, the shooting locations and the varying filming techniques used in the movie.
  • Chinatown: Legacy – Roman Polanski, Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne as they reflect on the film’s history, initial (and subsequent) success and the lasting impact as one of Hollywood’s greatest movies.
  • Theatrical Trailer

Disc Two (Blu-ray)

  • The Two Jakes – Yes, the 1990 “sequel” to Chinatown is essentially thrown in on a second Blu-ray disc. Enjoy.

The Bottom Line

The phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to” certainly applies here. Chinatown might be considered by many to be a near perfect movie. And in a career that spanned nearly 50 years, it’s certainly my favorite performance by Jack Nicholson. Paramount’s new 4K offering gives us a glorious picture and some new supplements to boot. Oh if you’re a fan of The Two Jakes – you’ve got that as a bonus. This one should be on every movie-lover’s shelf.

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