According to screenwriting guru Syd Field, Chinatown may well be the most brilliant screenplay ever written. I’m inclined to think he’s right. Despite having watched the film about five times, I’m still hard-pressed to offer up a cohesive plot summary. With so many twists, turns, and details, it’s hard to keep up with it all, but that’s very much the point. We’re thrown into the same situation as our protagonist, left to digest each development as it arises. No matter how many times you try to take it all in, there’s always something new to see, some little nuance you missed the last time. This, undoubtedly, is the mark of a very good movie.
As the story begins, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is approached by Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd). She claims to be the wife of Mr. Hollis Mulwray, and wants him investigated for infidelity. A leak to the press leads the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to launch a lawsuit against Mr. Gittes, but the unexpected murder of her husband causes her to drop the suit, hire Mr. Gittes herself, and, you know, take him to bed.
Further investigation uncovers a water scandal involving the diversion of water from Los Angeles to The Valley, and reveals that Mrs. Mulwray’s husband and father were co-owners of the water department. The whole thing smacks of corruption and lies, and where exactly does Evelyn fit in all of this? Is she telling him the whole truth, or just using him? After Jake gets his nostril slashed by a man (Roman Polanski) who say he shouldn’t be nosing around so much, you’ve got to wonder if he shouldn’t drop the whole thing.
Eventually the truth is revealed, but there is no justice at the end of it all. Poor Jake is left shaking his head, wondering what just went down and how it all managed to go wrong, but his colleague slaps him on the back and tells him not to worry. “It’s Chinatown, Jake,” he says, referring to a time and place where things will never fully make sense and will never be put right. It’s not exactly a satisfying ending, but it’s perfect nonetheless. The flawless acting, clever writing, and stylish appearance of the film only add to the perfection.
The Special Collector’s Edition of Chinatown comes with an hour of extra features including “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End”, “Filming Chinatown” and “Chinatown: The Legacy”. Each featurette boasts interviews with Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, producer Robert Evans, and screenwriter Robert Towne, so they’re as entertaining as they are informative to watch. Polanski is particularly charming as he confesses to watching Chinatown prior to the interview so he wouldn’t “sound like a dumbell”, and we get all sorts of behind-the-scenes info—even a breakdown of the famous nose-slashing scene! The original Theatrical Trailer rounds out the Extras.