CHINATOWN and TO CATCH A THIEF Blu-ray Reviews

     April 20, 2012

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Paramount is good about releasing classics on Blu-ray from time to time, and their latest batch offers one of the greatest films of all time, and an entertaining minor work by a master director. Chinatown is Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. It stars Jack Nicholson as a private dick assigned to find out about an affair that uncovers statewide corruption in California. Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief offers Cary Grant and Grace Kelly on the Riviera in beautiful Vista-vision. Both are definitely worth checking out on Blu-ray (if not purchased immediately) and our reviews of both follow after the jump.

chinatown-blu-ray-coverIn Chinatown, J.J. Gities (Nicholson) is a Los Angeles detective who mostly handles infidelity cases. He’s hired by Evelyn Mulray to check in on her husband Hollis who runs the Water department and spends most of his days checking out the reservoirs. Photos are taken of Hollis with a woman, and so Gitties gets what he thinks is wanted. Except the woman who hired him isn’t the real Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway), and Hollis is found dead shortly thereafter. The real Evelyn hires him to make his story believable, but J.J. is pretty sure her husband was murdered, especially after a midget (director Roman Polanski) takes a switchblade to his nose. Hollis’s death was all about the water in Los Angeles – there’s a drought going on and Noah Cross (John Huston) seems to be going about a land grab. Evelyn is Noah’s daughter, and there’s something between he and his daughter that she can’t speak about. Something horrible.

One of the undeniable classics of the 1970’s, Chinatown is a seminal work that is endlessly entertaining, and always rewatchable. Everyone brings their A game here, from cinematographer John A. Alonzo, to composer Jerry Goldsmith, to co-stars Burt Young and James Hong. Screenwriter Robert Towne was working from the detective/film noir template, and he makes a murder mystery that doesn’t feel like those earlier films – though is obviously indebted to them. Perhaps its Polanski’s widescreen framing that never really reminds of such famous gumshoes as Humphrey Bogart, or perhaps it’s the film’s attitude toward Nicholson’s character. He’s an attractive figure, but not given the same sort of lush romantic fetishism normally bestowed on crime fighters in trench coats. Gitties is an ex-cop who’s now reduced to taking pictures of infidelity, and he doesn’t have women throwing themselves at him the way Bogart or Mitchum did. Towne and Polanski’s work exists in that noir universe, but finds a greater truth to it  by dealing with grander conspiracies (which also ties it nicely into its era – it’s not just a corrupt old man, it’s the system). The tropes are there, but completely reinterpreted, even moreso than Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

chinatown faye dunawayAs great as everyone is here, it’s worth singling out Faye Dunaway’s performance. Watching it again, it’s such a brilliant, layered performance. On first pass the character is meant to be a question mark, but Dunaway’s ticks and characterization shows both a women of privilege, and a fragile creation. Polanski and Towne made a brilliant decision early on that no scene should be staged outside of Gitties viewpoint. We know and see what our detective does, so it never cheats the details, and it sets up one of its great reveals through ethnic misunderstanding. We may think that Gitties is slightly chumpy, but you’re with him every step of his way, and when he changes his mind about who might be the murderer, it’s always compelling.

The film builds to one of the most tragic and poignant endings in cinema. Towne spoke about never wanting to go to Chinatown in the film, as he saw it as a state of mind (the idea being that because the police were so outside of their culture in the real Chinatown, if they decided to help someone they might actually be helping a bad person), but when Polanski moved the end to Chinatown he put the main characters in either the purgatory or hell of existence where good intentions are trumped by money and power. In that way the film seems more of a piece with Vertigo and Blow Out. All three are masterpieces.

Chinatown is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in both 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD and its original mono mix in TrueHD. This is a new mastering of the film, and it looks spectacular. The film has been well looked after on home video, but this reveals greater details. I would stick to the original soundtrack, as the 5.1 exists to enhance the score, and then make gunfire and the like pop louder, which ultimately proves distracting. The film also comes with a commentary by Towne and David Fincher, and it’s a thoroughly engaging track. It’s great to hear Fincher talk about the art of a movie he didn’t make. New-ish to this release is “Water and Power” (78 min.) which has Robert Towne looking into the development of water into Los Angeles, and has a fuller history of the real work that went into getting water into the city. There’s also “Chinatown: An Appreciation” (26 min.) that has filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, Roger Deakins, and composer James Newton Howard to talk about the genius of the film. These were all done for the special edition that came out on DVD in 2009. From the archives, there’s three featurettes (57 min.) done by Laurent Bouzereau in 2007, with interviews from Nicholson, Polanski, Towne and producer Robert Evans. They walk through the production, what it meant at the time, and how they all worked together – there’s a great story about Nicholson and Polanski getting into a huge fight and then pulling up next to each other in their cars afterwards.  Also included is the film’s trailer.to-catch-a-thief-blu-ray-cover

As for To Catch a Thief, it’s fair to say I love Alfred Hitchcock. But minor Hitchcock is minor Hitchcock, and there’s no getting around that To Catch a Thief is Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant enjoying a vacation.

Cary Grant is John Robie, a cat burglar who turned straight to join the resistance in the war, and is now targeted for a string of burglaries that were done with a professionals touch. He’s confronted by H.H. Hughson (John Williams), an insurance agent who realizes that the best way to catch the person doing it is to use someone with expertise, and that person is Robie. While out figuring out who’s the next target for thieving, Robie and H.H. hook up with the Stevens: Jessica (Kelly) and mother Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis). Jessica is as cold as ice until she starts making out with John at the end of the night. She also figures out who John is. Such leads to a cat and mouse game to which Robie is trying to avoid the police and catch the criminal as Jessica falls further in love with him.

This is a fine minor Hitchcock that enjoys its French Riviera scenery and the charm of Grant and sex appeal of ice princess Kelly. As such it’s great to see a restored version on Blu-ray as the film’s location is as much of the star of the film as Grant or Kelly. Though both do the work that’s called of them – neither are anything less than charming – scenes are constantly stolen by the blasé bourgeois Landis. She falls for Robie before her daughter does, thinks he’s the bee’s knees, and even supports him when he’s under the spotlight.

Ultimately the film falls under a sub-genre I like to call “Vacation films” where talented people set a movie in a plush location as much for the film as a chance to enjoy it themselves. John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, and many an Elvis picture enjoy their exotic locals to that the film being made seems secondary. Hitchcock is not sleepwalking through the film, but the film is more of an enjoyable lark than his best work. It’s breezy, and that offers its own pleasures, but compared to his fun films like Rear Window or North by Northwest it’s a trifle.

to-catch-a-thief-cary-grant-grace-kellyOriginally there was a DVD with a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich that seems to have been scraped, but otherwise all previous supplementary material has been included. The Paramount Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in English 2.0 Stereo and Mono in Dolby TrueHD. All the supplements are repeated from the “Centennial collection” just as they were with the Chinatown disc. The film comes with thoughtful commentary by Drew Casper that mixes insight with some production detail. The rest of the supplements kick off with “A Night with the Hitchcocks” (23 min.) that has Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughter talk about the master filmmaker. “Unacceptable Under the Code: Censorship in Hollywood” (12 min.), has film professors talking about the MPAA codes and how Hitchcock worked around them, while “Writing and Casting To Catch A Thief” (9 min.), “The Making of To Catch a Thief” (17 min.), “Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation” (8 min.) and “Edith Head: The Paramount Years” (14 min.) were done for the film’s DVD debut, and offers comments from historians and the Hitchcock family on the making of the movie. “Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly” (6 min.) gets producer A.C Lyles and critic Richard Schickel to talk about the stars of the film. “If You Love To Catch a Thief, You’ll Love this Interactive Travelogue” offers quick glimpses at ten of the film’s locations. The disc concludes with a theatrical trailer and four still galleries.

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