Some respect for ‘The Two Jakes’

Special to The Times

“Chinatown,” the 1974 classic that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, is commonly acknowledged as a cornerstone of the neo-noir genre and a career peak for its key personnel: director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne (who won the movie’s only Oscar), stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and producer Robert Evans. By comparison, the sequel, “The Two Jakes,” is a mere footnote, a notoriously troubled production that took years to get off the ground and has since been all but forgotten.

Written by Towne, directed by Nicholson and released in 1990, “The Two Jakes” may not be a masterpiece, and it certainly never approaches the Greek-tragic grandeur of “Chinatown.” But it’s also a richer, more resonant movie than its nonexistent reputation suggests. Just as the filmmakers suffered the burden of expectations, the film itself is palpably haunted by history. “You can’t forget the past any more than you can change it,” Nicholson’s worse-for-wear hero Jake Gittes muses at one point. (Paramount is reissuing both movies this week in special collector’s editions.)

The best known of the three features Nicholson has directed, “The Two Jakes” is set in the late ‘40s, a decade or so after “Chinatown.” His hard-boiled private eye, still specializing in tawdry marital investigations, is showing the signs of a comfortable middle-age (thickened girth, impressive golf handicap, a briefly glimpsed fiancee).

The other Jake is Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), a real estate developer who has hired Gittes because he suspects his wife (Meg Tilly) of having an affair with his business partner. The plan is for Berman to catch them in a motel-room tryst, but he goes further and, in an apparent fit of rage, kills his partner. As Jake is drawn deeper into the case, becoming entangled with a pivotal figure from “Chinatown” and with the dead man’s femme fatale-ish widow (Madeleine Stowe), it’s increasingly unclear whether the killing was motivated by jealousy or greed.

Polanski was out of the picture, having fled for France in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl -- an incident that took place at Nicholson’s house. (“Chinatown” was the first film Polanski made in the States after his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of the Manson cult, and it would be his last.) Towne, who completed his screenplay for “The Two Jakes” in 1984, was initially slated to direct, but the project fell through at the last minute, apparently due to the growing acrimony among Towne, Nicholson and Evans.


Evans had endured a long dry spell after his ‘70s heyday, and the uberproducer and onetime actor thought of “The Two Jakes” as his big comeback. In a typically grandiose touch, he assigned himself the role of Jake Berman, which did not exactly please Towne.

The project was eventually resurrected in the late ‘80s with Nicholson as director and Towne assuming a more passive role (Nicholson rewrote parts of the script), with Evans off-screen as co-producer.

Like “Chinatown,” “The Two Jakes” is heavy on noirish twists and convolutions. But both films, unapologetically mired in details of local politics and ecology, also offer panoramic views of the development and defilement of Southern California in the first half of the 20th century.

In “Chinatown,” the whodunit unfolds against the infamous water grab that enabled Los Angeles to expand into its arid surroundings. The prized commodity in “The Two Jakes” is oil, discovered in vast quantities beneath one of the region’s mushrooming suburbs. (The conniving capitalist here is played by Richard Farnsworth, who seems positively twinkly-eyed next to John Huston’s suavely reptilian patriarch in “Chinatown.”)

From the outset, Towne had envisioned a Los Angeles trilogy centered on Jake Gittes, but the critical and commercial failure of “The Two Jakes” ended those plans. The concluding installment, titled “Cloverleaf” (as in freeway interchange), would have been set in the late 1950s, as the city succumbed to sprawl and smog. Given how well “The Two Jakes” has aged, it sounds more than ever like one of Hollywood’s great unmade movies.