There have been a lot of noir-influenced films recently – The Black Dahlia, Hollywoodland, Sin City – that end up with mixed results. The problem with a film like The Black Dahlia is that the filmmakers forget that what made noir great wasn’t just dramatic lighting and cigarettes; it was the bleak sordidness of the tales, the existential element to its cynicism that appealed to a post-war audience.

While white-bread Americans were moving to the ’burbs and buying Cadillacs, these low budget, “B pictures” explored the darker side of the Big City and human nature. One noir pastiche that got it right was Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece.

Following the gruesome murder of Polanski’s girlfriend, Sharon Tate, in the midst of Vietnam and Watergate, the time was perfect for the filmmaker to breathe fresh air into the noir tradition. The result was a tragic tale perfectly told.

The film stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and the man who invented noir, John Huston, in landmark performances. P.I. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is hired to investigate a case of suspected infidelity, but quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery that gets him in over his head with the city’s power elite and takes him straight into the heart of evil.

The cast’s dynamic turn bring to life Robert Towne’s dense, fatalistic script, which has gone on to become a sort of aspiring screenwriter’s Bible. The film oozes atmosphere, exploring the seedy, corrupt underbelly of Depression era Los Angeles.

The new collector’s edition disc presents the film in 16:9 widescreen and Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and includes four featurettes: Chinatown: The Beginning and the End!, Style, Acting and a film retrospective. The greatness of the film speaks for itself, but a commentary track – if not from Nicholson or Polanski, then at least from a film historian – would’ve been nice.

Grade: A-

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) is currently available.