Chinatown: Paramount Presents (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jul 08, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Chinatown: Paramount Presents (4K UHD Review)


Roman Polanski

Release Date(s)

1974 (June 18, 2024)


Long Road Productions/Robert Evans Company (Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A+

Chinatown (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


In some respects, the film noir genre came to an end after the transition from black-and-white to color during the Fifties and Sixties, replaced instead by the revisionary neo-noir films of the Seventies and the decades that followed. In 1973, Robert Altman’s genre-bending The Long Goodbye was a shot across the bows in that regard, updating the setting of Raymond Chandler’s classic novel to present-day Hollywood and offering a sharply satirical edge. Still, not everyone followed suit, and the next year, Paramount executive vice president and independent producer Robert Evans unveiled Chinatown, a film that’s essentially a genre unto itself. Chinatown is neo-noir as noir, respecting all of the familiar themes, tropes, and stylistic touches while still observing everything from a decidedly modern-day perspective. It’s traditional film noir produced without the arbitrary strictures of the Production Code, and with the advantages of anamorphic widescreen and dye-transfer Technicolor.

While the style of classic noir usually involved black-and-white cinematography, the world of noir wasn’t so much black or white as it was filled with shades of gray, although that moral ambiguity was tempered somewhat by the Production Code’s insistence that crime needed to be punished. Sexual themes had to be treated obliquely, if at all. Freed from those restrictions, it’s entirely appropriate that Chinatown was shot in color instead, since there aren’t enough shades of gray to cover all the ambiguities in this vision of Los Angeles circa 1937. Corruption was always inherent to the film noir genre, but the corruption in Chinatown stains everything from the political to the personal, and no one is left untouched by its effects. The big picture of Chinatown involves the traumatic upheavals caused by the dire need for water in the creation of modern Los Angeles, but the traumas visited upon all of its characters are of a decidedly more personal sort.

Chinatown opens with a traditional credit scrawl, its colors limited to sepia tones and the edges of the Panavision frame vignetted in order to approximate the 1.37:1 Academy aperture from the golden age of Hollywood. Once those titles are finished, the frame expands to widescreen and full color, but the brown stain will never leave it for the rest of the film (both literally and metaphorically). Yet the first real image that we witness in Chinatown is a series of graphic black-and-white photographs of a woman having sex, taken clandestinely by private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). In the background, we can hear the first sounds of trauma, namely the shocked reaction of the woman’s husband Curly (Burt Young). Curly hired Jake in order to find out if his wife was being unfaithful, and Jake is offering traumatic proof of that fact. In the endless cycle of traumas in Chinatown, we’ll later see how Curly works his feelings out on his wife with his fists, with Jake bearing indirect responsibility for that fact. This brief, seemingly throwaway scene actually limns the entirety of Chinatown—it’s the thesis statement that defines the rest of the film (and no, it’s not really about water rights at all).

Jake’s fatal flaw is his inability to accept the fact that his actions have unintended consequences. Despite the sleazy nature of his business, he has his own personal code of ethics, but he’s still unwilling to accept responsibility for what may result from his work. That ends up being writ large moments later, when Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) hires him to follow her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who she suspects of infidelity. Only she’s not the real Evelyn Mulwray, and the young woman (Belinda Palmer) that Jake photographs with Hollis isn’t actually his lover, either. Jake’s been had, and his actions will end up having massive consequences for the city of Los Angeles. They’ll also have serious consequences for the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and for Jake himself. There are powerful forces at work behind the scenes, including Evelyn’s wealthy industrialist father Noah Cross (John Huston). In the end, no one can stand in the path of progress, however traumatic that it may be. Chinatown’s consistently excellent cast also includes Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Roy Jensen, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, James Hong, Rance Howard, and Polanski himself (in an unforgettable cameo).

Chinatown began life when Evens offered Robert Towne a healthy sum of money to write an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Towne didn’t feel up to that task, so he accepted a smaller sum to write an original screenplay instead, one that was inspired by the real people and events that led to the birth of modern Los Angeles. Yet things didn’t quite come together until Evans hired Roman Polanski to direct the film. Polanski and Towne were on the same page in many respects, but they were at odds with each other in a few key areas. The dialectic between the two of them is what gave birth to the Chinatown that we have today. Towne was interested in the intricacies of the big picture, while it was the personal traumas experienced by all of the characters that appealed to Polanski. He was still processing the death of Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family, and that led to the famous disagreement between Polanski and Towne about the ending of Chinatown. Polanski ultimately prevailed, and Chinatown is a better film because he did. The bitter ending reinforces the cyclical nature of the traumas on display.

Jake’s life as a private investigator (and the distancing device offered by his personal code of ethics) is the result of his inability to process his traumatic failure to save the woman that he loved, many years ago while he was still a cop in Chinatown. His initially unwitting involvement in the plot against Hollis Mulwray starts the vicious cycle all over again, with inevitably tragic results. Chinatown may offer a history of Los Angeles, written in water as well as in blood, but water is a part of the cycle of birth, and nothing is born without trauma—and blood. The central genius of Chinatown is that the political cycle of upheaval that it presents is perfectly mirrored on the personal level, both by the characters in the film and in the lives of the people who made it. It’s impossible to disentangle any part of that from the film as a whole, and there’s no end to the cycles that are involved.

The sins of the father are visited upon the daughter in Chinatown, and to the daughter’s daughter as well. Worse, the trauma experienced by the mother is amplified in the traumas experienced by the daughter. Jake’s failure to protect the woman that he loved is passed on to yet another woman in Chinatown, with no less tragic results. On a meta-textual level, the sins of the Manson family were visited upon Sharon Tate, and trauma of her brutal murder was passed on to Roman Polanski. Polanski in turn passed his personal trauma on to the entirety of Chinatown, and in a cruel twist of fate, he ended up visiting his own sins upon another innocent victim a few years later. The water in the California Aqueduct flows downhill, and so does the trauma in Chinatown. It even exceeds the boundaries of the film frame. If Chinatown is the ultimate neo-noir portrait of corruption, it also demonstrates how the cycle of corruption can affect anyone downstream. It’s... well, it’s Chinatown.

Cinematographer John A. Alonzo shot Chinatown on 35mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with anamorphic Panavision lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. Alonzo came onto the project when original cinematographer Stanley Cortez stepped down, after shooting had already commenced. Cortez did all of the pre-production work and shot the first ten days of principal photography, so in some ways Alonzo had to work within an already established template, but he quickly put his own unique stamp on the material. The style that he created for Polanski blended the old with the new; they both agreed that the current vogue of practical source lighting wasn’t the right look for the film, so Alonzo freely lit things with unmotivated light sources in order to guide the viewer’s eye. Yet they both resisted the diffuse cinematography of classic Hollywood productions, keeping everything sharp and clear instead, even on the closeups of the female characters. Alonzo also used the fastest Panavision lenses that were available at the time, combined with Eastman 100T 5254 stock that he pushed one stop, in order to shoot with less light than what was traditional for this kind of film. The distinctive brown hues in Chinatown weren’t captured on the negative that way; first run prints were created using Technicolor’s dye transfer process, which involved contact printing with three individual color separations, and Alonzo had the lab adjust the matrices during that process to create the final tone. In the spirit of neo-noir as noir, Chinatown was a nearly perfect blend of the old and the new.

This version of Chinatown is based on a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, with digital restoration work also having been performed in order to repair damaged sections (previous masters had used dupe elements for those sections instead). It’s been graded in High Dynamic Range for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. While there are few other details available, it does appear that the original IB Technicolor prints were used as a guide, and the intent was to reproduce that look as accurately as possible—which means that Alonzo’s and Polanski’s original intentions also have been honored. Dye-transfer prints were softer than traditional prints due to the fact that the dyes inevitably spread slightly, and the grain was very subdued. Paramount has had a mixed track record lately as far as grain reduction goes, but in this case the grain levels are spot-on. The grain is still there, but it’s soft and subdued, just like it would have been on an IB Tech print. They got the encoding right this time as well, and there don’t appear to be any significant compression artifacts or other related issues, with even the skies appearing noise-free. The HDR grade has primarily been used to strengthen the contrast range (which also has the effect of naturally enhancing the detail), and the sunburnt brown tones that Alonzo originally created in post have never looked better, at least as far as home video is concerned. This isn’t necessarily reference-quality video in absolute terms, relative to the best that the format can offer, but it’s absolutely reference quality in terms of respecting the original look of film. If Chinatown looked any “better,” it wouldn’t look like Chinatown.

Audio is offered in the same 5.1 Dolby TrueHD remix as previous releases, with the original theatrical mono mix presented in lossy 2.0 Dolby Digital. Jerry Goldsmith’s score was a last-minute replacement after Phillip Lambro’s original score was rejected, with Goldsmith completing the assignment in just nine days. (Lambro’s music is still heard in the original trailers for Chinatown.) Goldsmith’s music was recorded and mixed in stereo, so the biggest advantage with the 5.1 remix is that it reproduces that natural spread and helps to bring his iconic score to life. The dialogue and effects are still primarily mono, with just some reverberations and light ambience in the surround channels. Still, it does have some minor alterations in it, so purist may prefer the original mono mix instead. That’s mastered at a significantly lower level, so you do need to adjust the volume up and down in order to compare the two of them properly, but for the most part the lack of a lossless option isn’t really an issue. There are a few moments like with Goldsmith’s ominously plinking piano where the decay may be more abrupt in Dolby Digital than it is in TrueHD, but it’s unlikely that most people would ever notice anything like that. As a Goldsmith fan, I prefer the 5.1, but the choice is yours.

Additional audio options include German, Spanish (Spain), French, and Italian 2.0 mono Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, Danish, German, Spanish (Spain), French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.

Paramount’s 4K Ultra HD release of Chinatown is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with Jack Nicholson’s sequel The Two Jakes in 1080p, but there isn’t a Blu-ray copy of Chinatown itself, so adjust your plans accordingly. There is a Digital Code on a paper insert, as well as a slipcover with a fold-out front that opens up to reveal the film’s legendary theatrical poster. There are no extras on the Blu-ray for The Two Jakes, but the following new and archival extras are included on the UHD only (and for all practical purposes, The Two Jakes is best considered as a bonus extra anyway):


  • Audio Commentary by Robert Towne and David Fincher
  • A State of Mind: Sam Wasson on Chinatown (HD – 15:57)
  • Chinatown Memories (HD – 5:43)
  • The Trilogy That Never Was (HD – 2:07)
  • Water and Power:
    • The Aqueduct (HD – 29:31)
    • The Aftermath (HD – 26:07)
    • The River & Beyond (HD – 22:07)
  • Chinatown: An Appreciation (HD – 26:13)
  • Chinatown: The Beginning and the End (Upscaled SD – 19:26)
  • Chinatown: Filming (Upscaled SD – 25:33)
  • Chinatown: The Legacy (Upscaled SD – 9:36)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:17)

The commentary track was originally recorded for Paramount’s 2012 Blu-ray release of Chinatown. It’s not so much a commentary as it is a conversation, with Towne and Fincher launching into it without any introductions or context—although the obvious unspoken subtext is that the two of them have been friends for some time. Fincher is clearly a student of the film and he does the lion’s share of the talking, but he does ask questions in order to prompt Towne’s involvement. They discuss the role that luck played in the entire production, the layers of mystery involved in the story, and some of the running motifs throughout the film. They do note that Evelyn is damaged goods, and how that works against the conventions of film noir since she’s more of a victim than a femme fatale. Fincher being Fincher, he can’t help but point out areas where he might have shot things differently, and he also points out technical errors like how the .38 snub nose revolver at the end couldn’t possibly have done that kind of damage at that distance—but he’s also careful to admit that it doesn’t really matter since the ending works perfectly anyway.

The next three extras are all new to this edition. A State of Mind is an interview with Sam Wasson, author of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. He explains that when he watches Chinatown, he always sees both the film itself and the collaborators who made it, so he wrote the book to honor them. He talks about Towne’s script and how Edward Taylor helped to write it in an uncredited capacity, but that Polanski still made the film his own—it’s Polanski’s nightmare version of Los Angeles. Wasson returns for The Trilogy That Never Was to provide a far too brief overview of Towne’s original plans for the L.A. trilogy that was never completed after the failure of The Two Jakes. Chinatown Memories features first assistant director Hawk Koch telling stories about a fight between Polanski and Dunaway, as well as another between Polanski and Nicholson.

The rest of the extras are archival ones, the first two of which were also created for the 2012 Paramount Blu-ray. Water and Power is a documentary that provides some background about the real-life water issues that lay behind the fictionalized story in Chinatown, as well as an analysis of how water problems continue to the present day. It’s divided into three parts that can be viewed individually or played as a group: The Aqueduct, The Aftermath, and The River & Beyond. Some of the background comes from William Mulholland’s granddaughter Catherine, author of William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, as well as John Walton, author of Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California. Other perspectives are provided by various councilmen, officials, engineers, activists, and residents, as well as by Robert Towne himself, who ended up visiting the real California Aqueduct for the first time in 2009. (Note that this documentary isn’t related to the similarly titled 2017 film Water & Power: A California Heist.)

Chinatown: An Appreciation is a retrospective look at the film featuring Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Pierce, Roger Deakins, and James Newton Howard. They offer their own first experiences with Chinatown, as well as their thoughts about the story, the filmmakers, the cast, the score, the editing, and more.

Aside from the Theatrical Trailer, the rest of the extras consist of a three-part documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau for the 2007 DVD release of Chinatown, featuring interviews with Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, and Robert Evans. Chinatown: The Beginning of the End covers the conception of the story, with Towne stating that what Chinatown itself represented for him was futility of good intention. Polanski didn’t want to work in Los Angeles again after the death of Sharon Tate, and his feelings resulted in his disagreements with Towne over the ending (although Towne admits that Polanski ended up being right about it). Chinatown: Filming examines the locations, casting, and cinematography of the film, as well as offering some stories about the production. (Among other things, apparently John Huston genuinely mispronounced Gittes, and they loved it so much that they left it in the film that way.) Polanski and Nicholson tell their own version of the fight between the two of them, with Polanski also giving his side of the fight with Dunaway. Finally, Chinatown: The Legacy covers the test screenings and eventual release of Chinatown, including why the original score was rejected, and the fact that the film ended up being nearly shut out at the Academy Awards.


  • The Two Jakes (HD – 137:30)

Jack Nicholson’s belated sequel to Chinatown is offered here in what appears to be the exact same disc as Paramount’s 2020 Blu-ray release of the film, just with a different Paramount Presents imprint on the surface. That means it doesn’t include any extras of its own, not even the trailer or the Jack on Jake featurette that was on the 2007 DVD. The picture quality offers a solid representation of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, marred only a bit by sharpening that creates some ringing and occasionally gives the grain a harshly digital appearance. Audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio plus German, French, and Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital, with optional English, English SDH, German, French, and Japanese subtitles. The Two Jakes was a notoriously troubled production, just like Chinatown before it, but the stars didn’t align as well in the final results. The details about that are a story for another day, but suffice it to say that while The Two Jakes may fall short of the greatness of Chinatown, it’s still an underappreciated sequel that’s worth another look.

That’s about it for all of the previously available extras for Chinatown, plus The Two Jakes as a bonus, with the only real omission being a brief collection of interviews that were included on the original DVD release of Chinatown. It’s worth noting that Paramount’s overseas UHD releases of Chinatown don’t include The Two Jakes, but they do include Blu-ray copies of the original film instead (these don’t appear to be remastered versions, though). So there really isn’t one “complete” version that offers everything, although in the balance, having the Blu-ray for The Two Jakes is probably the better option since Chinatown fans likely already own the previous Blu-ray, but they may not own The Two Jakes. In any event, the gorgeous 4K master of Chinatown is the real draw here, and it’s an essential addition to your collection even if it didn’t offer any extras at all. Highly recommended, if you can track down a copy.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)



1974, 1990, 2160p, 4K, 4K scan of the original camera negative, 4K UHD, 4K Ultra HD, Allan Warnick, Anne Goursaud, Belinda Palmer, Beulah Quo, Blu-ray, Blu-ray Disc, Bob Golden, Bruce Glover, Burt Young, Catherine Mulholland, Cecil Elliott, Charles Knapp, Chinatown, Claudio Martinez, crime, Darrell Zwerling, David Fincher, David Keith, Denny Arnold, Diane Ladd, Dick Bakalyan, Doc Erickson, Dolby TrueHD audio, Dolby Vision, drama, Eli Wallach, Elizabeth Harding, Faye Dunaway, Federico Roberto, film noir, Frederic Forrest, Fritzi Burr, George Justin, Harold Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Hawk Koch, HDR, HDR10, High Dynamic Range, Jack Nicholson, James Hong, James Newton Howard, James O’Reare, Jeff Morris, Jerry Fujikawa, Jerry Goldsmith, Jesse Vint, Jim Burk, Joe Mantell, John A Alonzo, John Hillerman, John Holland, John Huston, John Rogers, John Walton, Kimberly Pierce, Laurent Bouzereau, Lee de Broux, Long Road Productions, Luana Anders, Madeleine Stowe, Meg Tilly, mystery, Nandu Hinds, native 4K, neo-noir, Noble Willingham, noir, Paramount, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment, Paramount Presents, Paul Jenkins, Perry Lopez, Pia Gronning, Rance Howard, Rebecca Broussard, review, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Evans, Robert Evans Company, Robert Towne, Roger Deakins, Roman Polanski, Rosie Vela, Roy Jenson, Roy Roberts, Rubén Blades, Sam O’Steen, Sam Wasson, sequel, shot on 35 mm film, Stephen Bjork, Steven Soderbergh, Technicolor, The Digital Bits, The Two Jakes, Tom Waits, Tracey Walter, Ultra HD, Van Dyke Parks, Vilmos Zsigmond