Some cinema textbooks list two unlikely works representing the post-Watergate/post-Flower Power Generation at its most cynical: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Chinatown.”
The former can be expected, as it was released in 1974 and has a cast of characters who represent the worn out youth of the era, trying to find solace in a decade that didn’t listen to their cries for peace, love and harmony.
In fact, they’re punished horribly for their idealism.
The latter seems like a stretch at first. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” hit theaters in 1974 but is set in 1937. After all, what does the dark journey of sleazy, pre-WWII-era, detective for hire, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) have to do with anything contemporary?
Actually, Gittes and “Chinatown” have everything to do with the pessimism of the Vietnam era, and the film’s depiction of wealthy, corrupt men of influence holding all the power, still has much to say about our world right now.
Nicholson’s Gittes is introduced as a snoop for hire, taking photos of unfaithful spouses for money and seemingly indifferent to the harm he’s inflicting. A new client, Evelyn Mulwray, enters his life and immediately, his routine existence becomes a constant puzzle.
It turns out the woman who approached him isn’t even the real Mulwray, whose husband soon thereafter turns up dead. There’s a mysterious mistress, great concern over water (which is both a commodity and even a weapon here) and a heartbreaking resolution in which the only truly innocent character struggles to survive the heinous world around her.
At the center is Noah Cross (played by legendary filmmaker John Huston), a seemingly affable businessman whose power and lack of morals grows more apparent and disturbing with his every appearance.
Robert Towne’s screenplay remains a model of its type, an ode to the kind of knotty, deliberately confusing but (if you pay attention) rewarding mystery in which complex plot threads and dozens of characters tie together in the end. While the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett clearly inspired Towne, it’s the history of California that becomes a metaphor for corruption and incestual abuse.
The elements of classic Film Noir are all over this, as Gittes is our Unreliable Protagonist, Mulwray a striking, seemingly dangerous Femme Fatale and their journey becomes a search for moral redemption.
Gittes eventually gains empathy and belatedly attempts to do the right thing but, as Towne knows his genre, things don’t go the way anyone (in the film or out in the audience) would hope.
There’s also a great bit of misdirection, as a shiny but unseen clue in a pond is later to be revealed as a devastating clue and a key to Cross’ character. Not the use of the character Curly, played by a pre-“Rocky” Burt Young; The character seems present to merely simply set up Gitte’s morally disreputable occupation in the first scene.
Instead, Towne reconnects with the character later on, wordlessly explaining his domestic life since last meeting with Gittes and becoming a figure in the third act.
A key side character, Kahn (James Hong), is a figure who essential to Mulwray’s welfare but is also a servant who is pushed out of society’s view. Towne is commenting on the treatment of Asians during this era (note the witnesses in the final scene) in a subtle way that adds further texture to his depiction of a landscape shaped by the removal of history.
Cross, like many obscenely wealthy businessmen, isn’t simply altering the topography, he’s polluting the moral character of everyone he encounters.
Then there’s the legendary final scene, which is among the most punishing in all of American cinema. I wouldn’t dare give it away.
The inconclusive, harrowing finish of “Chinatown” was famously created not by Towne but by Polanski. The celebrated filmmaker, who became a household name after the massive success of “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, saw his personal life fall apart a year later, when his wife and unborn child were brutally murdered by the Manson family.
The vivid nightmare that is the concluding scenes of “Chinatown” (with its blunt, unforgiving final line) came from Polanski’s own pessimistic, hardened and shattered worldview.
It’s a remarkable quality of the film, which wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective had it concluded with Towne’s far more emotionally satisfying, more traditional finale, in which justice is found.
Few mainstream Hollywood endings are more uncompromised and soul crushing than the one in “Chinatown,” and it is a master stroke, all the more remarkable for not being a part of Towne’s original narrative blueprint.
While the film creates its seductive and unsettling world with historical fidelity, the presence of its stars offers an ageless depth. Nicholson, post- “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Last Detail,” embodies the wild restlessness of the decade, a thinking man’s movie star who can be credible and suitably edgy in any character, living in any time frame.
Dunaway, whose breakout starring role in “Bonnie and Clyde, made her, like Nicholson, suitably prickly and authentic in any role, is ideally matched with her co-star. There’s a real sting to their scenes together (none more notably than the big reveal of the story’s most sought after character).
Huston’s straight-forward performance, made all the more disturbing for how practical his explanations are of his behavior, is what makes him one of cinema’s most loathsome villains.
Nicholson once described his master plan for “Chinatown” in a 1985 Film Comment interview, in which he revealed it was intended to be a 3-film, 18-year project. Two sequels, “The Two Jakes” and “Gittes vs. Gittes” were planned, though only the former was ever made.
The three films were intended to deal with the elements of California that were exploited – water (in “Chinatown”), oil (in “The Two Jakes”) and air (in the unmade final film). While “Chinatown” is as complete and perfect film you could hope for, its sequel has been overlooked and neglected to a frustrating degree.
It was brushed aside as a needless, too-belated sequel. It’s time to give this engrossing and valuable second chapter another look.
In the establishing scenes of “The Two Jakes” (1990), Gittes is still taking sleazy pictures of unfaithful couples for profit but, as his opening line explains, “I guess it’s fair to say that infidelity made me who I am today.”
As time has passed for the filmgoer, it has also for Gittes. The character is now older, a war hero, maintaining a golf club membership and is even the owner of the building that houses his now-posh office. The arrival of a new client named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) leads Gittes on a tortured path of murder and deception.
It feels familiar to him.
Adding to his torment is a sudden, guilt-inducing clue: the name “Mulwray” pops up on a much sought after wire recording.
The events of “Chinatown” still eat away at Gittes. As he tried in that film, Gittes attempts to do the right thing and possibly redeem his soul. Of course, while Gittes was a part of the problem in the first film (initially, he seemed a few years removed from becoming the kind of man who disfigured his face), he now has a moral center.
Well, mostly, as his shaky ethics towards another client (Madeline Stowe, in a great, untethered performance) display some dubious ethics on his part.
There’s a collection of great performances here, starting with Nicholson. While the challenge of simultaneously maintaining a film set and structuring a performance can be too much for some, Nicholson can direct himself and act. The opportunity to see Nicholson return to Gittes is a major factor to why this is so irresistible and enormously entertaining.
Nicholson and Gittes are older, making this an atypically grown-up work about self-reflection and regret. Gittes and Berman are outsiders in their lush habitats. Gittes puts up with condescending attitudes because of his reputation as a muckraker, while Berman endures out in the open anti-Semitism.
While both are morally compromised men who struggle (and don’t always succeed) at being the men they could be, their true kinship is in their shared love for a woman they both want to save. Keitel’s final scenes are the key to his performance. He’s awfully moving in his big confession, as he and Gittes are finally on the same page.
David Keith, Richard Farnsworth, Frederick Forrest and a commanding Ruben Blades all have juicy scenes and rich character moments. A few supporting characters return from “Chinatown,” most notably a great Perry Lopez (whose rival snoop is now Captain Escobar) and Hong’s Khan, who wisely notes that Gittes is a “prisoner of his past.”
Best of all is Meg Tilly, playing Berman’s wife. Tilly has two scenes with Nicholson, one in a beauty parlor and another in a darkened house, illuminated only by candlelight. These scenes are so beautifully acted and intelligently written, they provide (to quote the sublime Jo Stafford song that plays over the end credits) the “haunted heart” of the piece.
Towne’s plot comes with so many details (some of which aren’t clear without repeat viewings), its more complex than necessary. While “Chinatown” told its twisty detective yarn with more clarity, “The Two Jakes” is the far more quotable film.
A key line from Gittes (that Nicholson purrs over a finely-honed narration): “You can’t forget the past any better than you can change it.” Seems like a simple observation, except our obsession with our mistakes and missed opportunities can be what defines us presently.
It takes Jake much of the film to be content with his own failures, though he’s far too messy and risk-taking for an easy or even visible catharsis. Another keeper of a line: Gittes boasts, “What I do may not be very reputable, but I am…in this town, I’m the leper with the most fingers.”
FAST FACT: “The Two Jakes” earned $10 million at the U.S. box office during its 1990 run.
Songwriter Van Dyke Parks (who famously co-wrote Brian Wilson’s “Smile”) composed the score to “The Two Jakes” and he lays on the noir feel a little too thick. Jerry Goldsmith’s far more subtle work on “Chinatown” is preferable (and among his best compositions).
“Chinatown” had a faded color palette, as though the life were draining from these figures of the past with every passing scene. Polanski made films with far more heightened reality (“Rosemary’s Baby” is certainly a strong example), though he maintains focus on Towne’s fastidiously crafted narrative.
“The Two Jakes,” on the other hand, is playful and stylish in its look. Nicholson’s third film as a director (following the youth drama “Drive, He Said” and comedic western “Goin’ South”) reflects some of the try-anything flamboyance of a filmmaker trying to impress Roger Corman. The cinematographer is Vilmos Zsigmond, whose work here is my favorite in his long list of exemplary work.
Check out that shot where Nicholson and Lopez enter the police station and Zsigmond films them from the ground up. Instead of showy-for-the-sake of showy, it adds dimension and atmosphere to what could have been a static shot.
Ditto the moment where a golf ball is filmed missing a putt…from inside the hole! I can’t think offhand of another movie with sunsets as beautiful and evocative as this one (the shot of Jake gazing at the end of the day from cliffside should be iconic).
This is a gorgeously filmed work.
Nicholson famously tried to get “The Two Jakes” made in 1985, with Towne directing (since Polanski was, by then, a fugitive) and the other Jake played by producer Robert Evans. Disagreements regarding this arrangement made the project collapse.
It wasn’t until Nicholson played The Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” that its massive success (and a whole new generation of fans) made him return to the world of “Chinatown.”
“The Two Jakes” was scheduled as a big Christmas release for 1989 but was drastically pushed back until August of the following year. Reportedly, the narration was a late touch (and a worthwhile addition at that). Coming at the tail end of a summer of noisy, carnage-heavy action movie sequels, it felt entirely out of place.
Despite it being Nicholson’s first post-“Batman” movie and his first sequel, it was hard to imagine the audiences who filled screenings of “Die Hard 2” and “RoboCop 2” were familiar with “Chinatown.”
Nicholson’s film flopped, with critics matching the audience indifference. It was among the cluster of 1990 movies that were sequels to defining films of the 1970s: “The Exorcist III,” “Texasville” (the sequel to “The Last Picture Show”) and “The Godfather, Part III,” all under-appreciated (yes, even the latter title) during their time in theaters.
It’s extremely helpful, perhaps even essential, to watch “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes” back-to-back.
Towne expects audiences to be familiar with names like Mulwray and Loach to give off a jolt of recognition. Towne tells a great story, but even more so than its predecessor, this is a demanding work that requires close attention. The reflections between the two films are intriguing – a murder of a husband is an inciting incident and, this time, a rare flower and not a pair of glasses, holds the key to the truth.
Like another challenging sequel that was met with a shrug but actually enriches its original (“Blade Runner 2049,” I’m looking at you), “The Two Jakes” doesn’t deserve its reputation as a discarded curiosity item. If “Chinatown” is cinematic perfection, then “The Two Jakes” is the perfect follow up.
Whereas the first film concludes with, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” “The Two Jakes” is about why Gittes absolutely cannot and will never forget.
Great piece on a great movie and its underrated sequel. My own Chinatown DVD was signed by James Hong.
Honestly? I like Two Jake’s just a little bit more. Thanks for this column.
Chinatown is such a masterwork of plot and dialogue (and acting, too). I never tire of watching it.
Great film-making, both of them. Movies for grown-ups. Have bookmarked this review.
Enjoyed Two Jakes immensely. But Chinatown it ain’t. Not by a long shot. It’s very interesting visually and as mentioned some terrific performances. But some major script problems. A little off the subject but I also enjoyed Going South. Too bad Jack didn’t direct more. Especially later in his career.
I watched 2 Jakes again. It was thoroughly enjoyable for me but I think Jack showed real gaps as a director.
Tilly and Stowe, the two female leads, were weakly acted and I blame the direction. It seemed like Jack was the only important element in every scene.
The male supporting characters, on the other hand, were very interesting but just incidental to Jack.
Let’s retitle it One Jake.