The Three Jakes: On the Legacy of Chinatown and its (Would-Be) Sequels

Fifty years ago, the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s reached its pinnacle with the release of Chinatown. The baby of four of the decade’s biggest players—director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, and star Jack Nicholson—the film would cement itself as not only one of the landmark works of American cinema, it would reshape the entire mythology of Los Angeles. 

Set in 1937, Chinatown sees successful private investigator Jake Gittes (Nicholson) stumble upon a conspiracy whereby a cabal of wealthy big shots plan to steal water from the area surrounding Los Angeles in a bid to expand the city (and their ownership of it). This leads to further revelations, including murder, rape, and incest. 

Although designed as a throwback homage to classic noirs of Hollywood’s Golden Age—in particular, the hard boiled mysteries adapted from the novels of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler—Chinatown has since become as foundational a noir text as its predecessors, and the films that have taken inspiration from or even outright aped it are as numerous as they diverse: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, L.A. Confidential, Rango, Poolman, just to name a few.

It’s also embedded itself in the larger image of the city it’s set in, with many believing that the central water siphoning scheme is historically accurate. This is not the case; as anyone who’s read Cadillac Desert or seen Los Angeles Plays Itself knows, the real story, although similar to what plays out in the film, was far more banal and public, even if it was no less corrupt. But that hardly matters—to quote a different film, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. 

Over the course of the intervening decades, Chinatown maintained its legendary status, despite the best efforts of those behind it, and I’m not just talking about the criminal scandals that nearly destroyed Polanski and (to a lesser, but still serious extent) Evans’s careers and lives. After Polanski fled to France in the wake of his impending prosecution for rape, Evans, Towne and Nicholson decided to return to the well of Chinatown with a sequel–the second in a proposed trilogy. 

It took them nearly a decade to make The Two Jakes, and by the time it opened to middling (at best) reviews and terrible box office in 1990, the three men—once the best of friends—were no longer on speaking terms. But as the villain of the first film, reptilian industrialist Noah Cross (John Huston), remarks to Jake Gittes, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

The same might be said of certain films, because with the golden anniversary of the original now upon us, Paramount is set to release a deluxe set that includes a 4K UHD of Chinatown along with a new Blu-Ray of The Two Jakes. This follows on the heels of a steady reclamation of the latter by critics and cinephiles over the past several years, with some even claiming it’s the better of the two films. This is obviously ridiculous, but the going consensus does place it alongside another long-awaited Paramount sequel from 1990 once considered a travesty but now regarded as underrated: The Godfather III.

Is this accurate? Yes and no. Like The Godfather III, The Two Jakes—which is set 11 years after the first film and follows an older, richer, heavier and more haunted Gittes as he becomes entangled in another land theft scheme, this time revolving around oil and mineral rights, that reunites him with Katherine Mulwray, the long-lost daughter of his murdered love Evelyn—mostly suffers by comparison to what came before.

Under Nicholson’s direction (with a huge assist from DOP Vilmos Zigmond), The Two Jakes is a handsomely made period mystery with a couple memorable scenes and some fine performances from both returning faces (James Hong, Perry Lopez, Joe Mantell, and in a voiceover cameo, Faye Dunaway) and a murderer’s row of newcomers (Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, David Keith, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach, Richard Farnsworth and Tom Waits). 

But it lacks the shadowy menace of Polanski’s work, tipping over into wackiness on a couple of occasions (a dizzying explosion that sends Nicholson spinning ass over teakettle in the air plays like something out of a Coens’ farce) as well as the understated, lived-in quality of the original’s cinematography and production design. Chinatown transports you to old L.A.; The Two Jakes gives you a very impressive diorama of it. Story-wise, The Two Jakes is appropriately convoluted, as all P.I. mysteries should be, but the last act is unintentionally muddled and despite climaxing with a literal explosion (one of several throughout the film), it ends not with a bang but a whimper. Compare that to Chinatown, which boasts one of, if not the most devastating final scenes and lines in all of moviedom.

But it’s not merely comparison that hurts The Two Jakes. The power of the original’s ending comes from its utter hopelessness, its resignation to horror, to the void. This is all due to the one man missing from the sequel: Roman Polanski, who changed Towne’s original somber, but more traditionally cathartic ending—which had Evelyn go to prison after successfully killing her monstrous father—in the wake of wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child’s slaughter at the hands of the Manson Family. Chinatown, like Los Angeles, is forever linked to that moment of evil, so it has to end with evil triumphant. Returning to the characters over a decade later and giving them a measure of solace undermines that. There’s just no way around it.

The genesis of The Two Jakes and it’s never-to-be-made follow up, Gittes vs. Gittes—which would have plunked Nicholson’s P.I. in 1968, his livelihood under threat in the wake of California’s newly enacted no-fault divorce laws—is as convoluted as its plot. According to Nicholson, Towne had conceived of the trilogy (or “triptych,” as he was fond of calling it) before he even wrote the script for Chinatown. Towne has said this isn’t true, although his timeline of when exactly he came up with the ideas for the sequels varies depending on who he’s talking to (Evans, for his part, says the sequel was his and Jack’s idea). Nicholson also claims the would-be trilogy was meant to take place in real time, not unlike Richard Linklater’s Before series: “We wanted to do a project whereby you waited the real amount of time that passed between the stories before going forward.”

Again, this claim has been refuted by Towne, although he does echo Nicholson’s remarks about the unifying theme of the trilogy being the elements, with the first centering around water, the second around earth and fire, with the third to concern air pollution. The focus on water rights in Chinatown helps ground it in real-life history and imbues it with a sense of verisimilitude. Plonking Gittes down in the exact same circumstances twice more, with only the element in question changed, undoes all of that. 

Nicholson once described this grand vision as a “literary conceit.” He’s right, and therein lies the problem. It feels like a conceit, one that’s too clever by half. The Godfather Part II and, for whatever else you think about it, Part III, were continuations of the same story. By contrast, The Two Jakes and, we can imagine, Gittes vs. Gittes, feel like retreads.

While The Two Jakes makes for an interesting curio, its very existence is inimical to the legacy of its predecessor, even as it does nothing to diminish the power of that film. 

In other words: Forget it Chinatown, it’s Jakes.

Paramount’s 4K “Chinatown” / Blu-ray “Two Jakes” set is out now.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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