Gleaming the Queue: The Two Jakes (1990)

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of my all time favorite films.  But, despite my appreciation for the 1974 Oscar winning film, I had never seen its 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, directed by Chinatown star, Jack Nicholson.  And never seeing this sequel was intentional – it was panned by both audiences and critics upon it’s release, and I feared watching it would somehow taint my admiration of the original (this is also the reason I’ve never seen The Godfather Part III in full.)  But, when Netflix suggested The Two Jakes to me this past month, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to finally watch the film with the intention of reviewing it for this month’s Gleaming the Queue.  And, to be completely forthright, I’m glad that I did.

When The Two Jakes opens, Los Angeles isn’t the dreamy desert town it was in the 1930s Chinatown.  The city is overcrowded with a post-WWII boom of soldiers returning home ready to start a family.  This means they’ll need houses, which means land deals must be made and new roads must be built.  Since cars run on gasoline, oil must be drilled.  And private investigator, Jake Gittes (played again by Jack Nicholson), much like Los Angeles itself, has too lost his charm.  His reputation in this now established in town as “the leper with the most fingers”.  He’s grown prosperous, comfortable, and a little round; he has a fiancée, and rarely does he snap photos of adulterers under the sheets anymore.

The film opens in Gittes’ office, a luxurious space recalling Humphrey Bogart’s in The Maltese Falcon, with light shining through the blinds to create dramatic horizontal lines on the opposite wall and faces of those in the room.  Nicholson narrates in pulpy rhetoric oozing with juicy metaphors and colorful imagery; he didn’t narrate in Chinatown because Polanski’s film was more than a pure exercise in noir style, but no matter.  The voiceover fits well here, we come to learn, as this neo-noir delves further into Jake’s head, specifically with memories of Faye Dunaway’s late Evelyn Mulwray and her sister-daughter Katherine still rattling around up there.  As for the other Jake – Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) – a distraught housing developer who thinks his wife (Meg Tilly) is having an affair.  Gittes and his associates have already arranged a walk-in where Berman will catch the two in the act, while Gittes and company record the confrontation on audio wire in the next room. Berman rehearses his lines like a bad actor, but when the moment comes, his jealousy prevails and he kills the other man.  It all seems like an open-and-shut crime of passion, until the hysterical, bereaved wife of the deceased adulterer (Madeleine Stowe) suggests there might’ve been a financial motive behind Berman killing his wife’s lover.

Once again, Jake finds himself embroiled in a seemingly straightforward domestic case that mushrooms into a conspiracy all about a natural resource—but now it’s oil, not water.  Allegedly, screenwriter Robert Towne conceived Chinatown as a trilogy, the first film about water, the second about oil, and the last unfilmed entry (often referred to as Cloverleaf or Gittes vs. Gittes) about Los Angeles’ limited land for development in the 1960s.  As such, Jake Berman’s victim turns out to also be his business partner, and the two of them were punching out details to a housing project on a particular plot of land formerly owned by none other than Katherine Mulwray.  Berman’s company sells cheap model homes in a future suburban neighborhood on land which Katherine’s father, Noah Cross, so endeavored to irrigate and make livable in the thirties.  But Texas Tea waits underneath that land, and tycoon Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth) has plans to drain the land of so much black gold (oil, that is).  To add an extra layer of plot complexity,  Gittes must prove Bergman guilty of premeditated murder, despite the fact that Bergman is Gittes’s client, so to avoid implication in a costly civil suit.  When Gittes straight-out confronts Berman with whether or not the killing was a crime of passion, Berman responds with a familiar line: “You might think you know what’s going on around here, but, you don’t.”

Meanwhile, everyone from the LAPD’s Captain Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Berman’s gangster friend ‘Mickey Nice’ (Rubén Blades) wants Gittes to turn over his office’s wire recording. But doing that would not only leave too many questions about Berman’s true motivations, it would leave Gittes unable to determine how Katherine, whose name is mentioned on the wire, is involved.  Gittes still feels responsible for what happened to Evelyn Monroe in Chinatown, and perhaps he always will.  Gittes isn’t one for forgetting the past, and Nicholson portrays him with a knowing sense of acceptance about himself—that the past will always plague him, but he refuses to forget nevertheless.  In a way, he needs it, and it defines him.

As a result, Nicholson’s performance isn’t the somewhat naïve character he once was; he seems to have learned from his mistakes, and he takes each (of the many) twists in the plot in stride.  Having seen it all, his seasoned private investigator isn’t quite the nonchalant ego that defined Nicholson in the late 1980s to mid 1990s —he isn’t merely playing the “Jack” persona—but he channels elements of his celebrity to enhance Gittes’ experience.

In turn, The Two Jakes becomes less about uncovering a mystery and more about identifying the limits to which these two eponymous characters will go to protect what they care for, and how, different approaches aside, they’re both trying to protect the same woman.  Had Katherine’s name not been mentioned on the wire, chances are there would be no film—and without her, what would either Jake’s motivation be?  But from the film’s beginning, when the two Jakes realize what their respective friends call them and that they’re both wearing the same style shoes, there seems to be a kinship between them that comes and carries throughout the film.  Along the way, Robert Towne’s script and Nicholson’s direction meander through pulpy murder, racy sexual exploits, comical run-ins with the police, and scandal galore. Following how one moment of intrigue leads to the next might take more than one viewing, but in the end the filmmakers bring the audience back with a surprisingly affecting scene between Keitel and Nicholson (probably the only truly standout moment The Two Jakes) .

For those versed in the exhaustive detail of Chinatown, Towne and Nicholson have imbedded references to the original (including two or three ungainly, albeit momentary, flashbacks): Gittes’ associate Walsh (Joe Mantell), now silver-haired with crystal blue eyes, serves as a moral register to remind Jake when he’s pushing even his limitations. And there’s at least one reappearance of an annoying “gate-keeper” – remember the zit-faced twit behind the counter at the hall of records in Chinatown?  Now, he’s a notary public who’s earned himself a mouthful of metal for squealing, but still remains as snide as ever.

For the most part, however, the film seeks to expand on the character Jake Gittes, effectively touching base with him more than a decade later to see how he’s grown.  Even with the theme of the past’s importance, The Two Jakes isn’t just a trip down memory lane. New characters and lively dialogue make for salacious noir-style storytelling, every moment made lustrous by Vilmos Zsigmond’s moody lensing.  Fans of the genre – myself included – will feel right at home.

However, watching The Two Jakes today requires some distance.  If viewed straightaway after screening Polanski’s film, the vast differences between the respective directors’ stylistic approaches and period settings—not to mention a dramatically older-looking Nicholson—will prove distracting and incongruous.  Put a week or month in-between the two films – or, in my case, years – if for just over two brief hours, to forget what a genius picture Polanski made, and instead concentrate on the polished, thoughtful noir Nicholson has made.  Honestly, to contrast these two films is unfair and meaningless; neurotically calling attention to the stylistic disparities between Polanski’s picture and Nicholson’s is what drove the sequel’s poor reception upon its initial release.  Asking “What if Polanski had directed?” ignores what we were given –  a smart, unexpectedly moving film that deepens the unwavering legacy of the original.

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