The Two Jakes (1990)

Not popular at the time, but an absolute gem of a film. Understated. Intelligent. With integrity to its prequel, Chinatown.


Not popular at the time, but an absolute gem of a film. Understated. Intelligent. With integrity to its prequel, Chinatown. Admirable performances all around, including from a 53-year-old Jack Nicholson with no attempt to look more trim or younger, the way it is now almost to be expected from preening, middle-aged, former pretty boys.

It’s not until I looked up the credits that I realised Chinatown’s author, Robert Towne, had scripted this one too, and had even been considered as a director, but deferred to Jack Nicholson, who also co-produced.

The set and costume design is highly evocative, setting it apart from many films in that era that blithely eschewed any attempt at historical verité, probably calculating that most of the audience wouldn’t notice.

Good as Nicholson was, I’m almost inclined to say that Harvey Keitel stole the show. And I was well entertained by Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, David Keith, and even a cameo by a youthful-looking Tom Waits.

It’s pretty easy to see why this wasn’t a more successful film. The top grossing movies that year included Ghost, Home Alone, Pretty Woman, Dances with Wolves, Total Recall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hunt for Red October, and Dick Tracy.

My personal favourites that year, which I still consider all-time great films about America, were Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fisburne, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi) and Phil Joanou’s State of Grace (Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, John Turturro).

And there were at least a dozen other films released that year which are considered classics, like Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Goodfellas, The Grifters, The Handmaid’s Tale, Internal Affairs, Memphis Belle, Men at Work, Miller’s Crossing, Narrow Margin, Night of the Living Dead, Q&A, Reversal of Fortune, Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, The Russia House, White Hunter Black Heart, and Wild at Heart. That’s pretty stiff competition for even the best of films, with most of those being better Oscar material than the Oscar winners for the past decade.

If, like me, you have occasional bouts of insomnia, you could do worse than put aside The Two Jakes for such an occasion.

The Two Jakes, Paramount Pictures, 1990, colour, 138 minutes. Directed by Jack Nicholson. Produced by Robert Evans, Harold Schneider, Jack Nicholson. Written by Robert Towne. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Music by Van Dyke Parks.

Featuring: Jack Nicholson as JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, Harvey Keitel as Julius ‘Jake’ Berman, Meg Tilly as Kitty Berman/Katherine Mulwray, Madeleine Stowe as Lillian Bodine, Eli Wallach as Cotton Weinberger, Rubén Blades as Michael ‘Mickey Nice’ Weisskopf, Frederic Forrest as Chuck Newty.