Chinatown Revisited

April 10th, 2012 by Max Allan Collins

At last a Blu-ray of CHINATOWN has been released, and it looks glorious. I haven’t listened to the commentary featuring writer Robert Towne and director (though not of this film) David Fincher. But the feature, on this upteenth visit by me, once again wove its spellbinding narrative.

As the author of the Nathan Heller novels, I was struck by how much I was influenced by the film, not in the obvious way of its being a period private eye film with a historical basis; but by two other, more subtle aspects of the film.

First, Jake Gittes is a rather typically cocky P.I. who is able to master his little corner of the universe. But when cast into the bigger world that is the corruption of the USA in general and L.A. in particular, he is out of his depth (“You may think you know what you’re dealing with…”/“Forget it, Jake – it’s Chinatown”). Heller was definitely influenced by the post-Watergate conspiracy approach of the film, and while Heller (like Gittes) always has small victories, he cannot triumph over the powers-that-be, whether government or mob. It’s significant in CHINATOWN that while Jake is pretty much in every frame of the film for its duration, he is finally, literally yanked out of the frame – and stripped of his ability to have an impact on the story – as its conclusion tragically unfolds.

Second, while Jack Gittes reflects Robert Towne’s respect for Raymond Chandler, Towne nonetheless set out specifically to make Gittes the opposite of Phillip Marlowe (this I confirmed in an interview online). Gittes takes divorce cases, he’ll sleep with clients, he’ll take a bribe, and…any of that sound familiar? I set out in TRUE DETECTIVE specifically to break every one of the rules Chandler set down in his “down these means streets” code. Towne, I have learned, essentially did the same thing.

Those of you who love CHINATOWN but who have dismissed its sequel, THE TWO JAKES (1990), should strongly consider watching the DVD of the latter after viewing the Blu-ray of the former. Whether you disliked THE TWO JAKES or avoided seeing it out of misguided respect to CHINATOWN, you need to give it a serious look. It works extremely well when your mind is fresh with the first Gittes film, as it’s a coda of sorts that is intertwined with CHINATOWN both on the plot and thematic level. On its own terms, it’s an intelligent private eye film, directed by Nicholson with restraint and sense of style and mood. As a ten years later continuation of CHINATOWN, the second film has resonance and substance.

Of course, THE TWO JAKES is not on the level of CHINATOWN. Nicholson studiously avoided any melodrama and even left some plot elements (including a killing and a great post-courtroom comeuppance for a Noah Cross-style villain) on the cutting room floor, after his initial cut was deemed too lengthy. Apparently Towne was unhappy with those cuts, but that doesn’t keep THE TWO JAKES from being a worthy, rewarding coda to the greatest private eye film of all time (yes, even better than KISS ME DEADLY).

For a film to be great, the gods must smile – everything must fall into place, all creative talents must be perfect for their roles (whether actor or otherwise) and at the top of their game. Luck and magic must happen. CHINATOWN originally had what is said to be a lousy score, and Jerry Goldsmith was brought in at the last minute to write (in a little over a week) what is now considered one of most memorable film scores of all time. THE TWO JAKES suffers from what is at best a serviceable score (by Van Dyke Parks), and at worst an intrusive one.

Nonetheless, it too deserves a Blu-ray. On my sound system, the unmemorable music swamps the dialogue; perhaps the Blu-ray format, with its excellent sound, would remedy that. But it took Paramount this long to release CHINATOWN, so….

And I suppose it’s too late to hope that Nicholson and Towne might get together one last time for GITTES VS. GITTES, the third film in the trilogy, derailed by the lack of commercial success for THE TWO JAKES (not intended as a coda, but a pastoral fugue of a second act). The trilogy was to be water (CHINATOWN), fire (THE TWO JAKES) and air (GITTES VS. GITTES). The third film would have been set in 1968 and deal with the end of no fault divorce, a reclusive Howard Hughes-type villain, and the LA freeway system. Call that one the greatest private eye film never made.


One Response to “Chinatown Revisited”

  1. Chinatown was one of the highlights of last weekend’s TCM Film Festival. It was screened at the Chinese Theatre on Friday. Robert Towne and Bob Evans were there to discuss the film. Boy, am I sorry I had to miss it now!