Mommy Times Two!

August 11th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins
Mommy and Mommy’s Day: A Suspense Duo

Mommy & Mommy’s Day: A Suspense Duo is available on Kindle right now for $2.99.

This is the first time the two Mommy novels have been collected, though it was always my hope to have them combined into one volume. I did not revise Mommy’s Day to exclude any redundant material, preferring to keep the books in their original form. But I believe they will work well as one long narrative.

As I mentioned here a few weeks ago, the novel version of Mommy begins earlier than the film and is a more complete rendition of the narrative, including a good deal more back story. When the late lamented Leisure Books approached me, back in the day, about doing a few horror titles for them, I immediately pitched Mommy (the second film hadn’t happened yet) and they were good enough to bite.

I haven’t hidden the fact that Mommy is an homage to The Bad Seed. The film’s casting of Patty McCormack, the original Rhoda Penmark, as the otherwise unnamed “Mrs. Sterling” (aka Mommy) tied that film to the famous original. But The Bad Seed was also a play by Maxwell Anderson (my favorite playwright) and a (in the beginning) novel by one of my favorite writers, William March. (The police detectives in the Mommy movies are named after Maxwell and March.) So the idea of writing Mommy’s story in novel form was something I had always hoped to do. (There was a “Mommy” short story that predated the film and the novel of the same name, written essentially as a story treatment to sell Patty McCormack on returning to a variation on her signature childhood character.)

Mommy is sometimes called an “unofficial sequel to The Bad Seed. There’s no question it’s a switch on the original, and in some ways an homage to it. And I was vague enough that if you want it to be a Bad Seed sequel, you can imagine it as such…but nothing I write in either the screenplay or novel confirms that.

And of course Mommy’s Day really has nothing to do with the novel, play or film versions of The Bad Seed. I made a point of the sequel not being a rehash of the first film/novel.

Right now you can’t order a print version of Mommy & Mommy’s Day: A Suspense Duo. But that will come from Wolfpack, and when it does, you’ll hear about it here.

Wolfpack is moving quickly on getting some of the titles I licensed to them onto Kindle, coming up with some great covers (I think this Mommy & Mommy’s Day cover is incredible). I am excited about getting a number of new short story collections out there, and Matt Clemens and I have already delivered the first in a new novel series that Wolfpack will be bringing out in October.

Much more about that here in the weeks and months ahead.

* * *

The HBO reboot of Perry Mason is something I’ve been tough on here and elsewhere. But, because its success or failure may impact various projects of mine (TV interest in Heller and Hammer specifically), I have kept an eye on it. If nothing else, they’re working my side of the street.

It has improved. The last three episodes have dropped much of the inappropriate back story and we are finally in the courtroom, where Matthew Rhys has abandoned his Sad Sack characterization for a Mason with spine and courtroom talent. Mostly getting the story into the courtroom has made the difference – these sequences fairly sing – and there’s a fun moment when Hamilton Burger stands up in the gallery and reminds Mason (who is drilling down on someone we know to be a murderer) that nobody ever confesses on the witness stand.

That kind of playing with the source material is legit, as opposed to the nonsense of checking off the contemporary boxes by having Della Street be a lesbian, Hamilton Burger be gay, and Paul Drake black. But the art direction and cinematography are superb – it looks like (literally) millions and millions have been poured into each episode.

My biggest gripe remains the constant f-wording. Now regular readers of Quarry and other series of mine may find that complaint amusing, but it’s strictly a matter of not being anachronistic. Ef words weren’t thrown around to that degree in 1931. And terms and phrases like “throw shade on,” “enablers,” “in a hot minute,” and (this from a farmer) “shell companies” are at odds with the beautifully recreated 1930s Los Angeles.

I still think the score is lousy, but I will give the producers credit for having the sense to finally acknowledge just what sandbox they’re playing in by doing a very moody version of the original Perry Mason theme over the end credits.

It’s been renewed.

* * *

My readers have been great to me over the years, often going above and beyond the call of duty. Posted for some time has been a Nate Heller chronology by the late Michael Kelley.

Bill Slankard created a Nate Heller chronology a while back, and he has been kind enough to update it so that Do No Harm is included.

I am going to share it with you here, but my son Nate will eventually post it here for easy referral.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ikBw0kJS1_YJVYm7kavBviStxyA0bL_M/view

I am very grateful to Bill. I think this will help Nate Heller’s readers…and I know it will help me! I am talking to a publisher right now about the next home for Nate Heller. Neither he nor I are finished just yet.

* * *

The Strand’s blog features an article I did to promote Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (by A. Brad Schwartz and me) on “10 Additional Surprising Facts About Eliot Ness.

Finally, here’s an excellent review of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher from the New York Journal of Books.

M.A.C.

Celebrating the Release of the Mad Butcher

August 4th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins
Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher
Hardcover: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link
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Audio CD: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link

Today is the publication date of the non-fiction tome Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher by A. Brad Schwartz and myself. I am celebrating this by giving away ten copies.

[Edit: All copies have been claimed. Thank you!]

The four Eliot Ness novels covering his Cleveland years – a quartet that eventually led to both the play/film Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life and the two non-fiction works, Scarface and the Untouchable and the new Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher – are available at Amazon from Wolfpack as An Eliot Ness Mystery Omnibus for $2.99. Even with my meager math skills, I can tell that’s a penny under three bucks for four novels.

While we hope to offer new print versions of the novels (perhaps in two-novels-to-a-volume form), right now they are Kindle e-books only. So no giveaways are in the cards for now. But if you have already read the novels – any of them – and liked them, reviews of the Eliot Ness Omnibus would be much appreciated. Right now we have a paltry two reviews at Amazon and that doesn’t go very far at getting the Omnibus noticed. Even if you haven’t bought the books in this new form, don’t hesitate about reviewing them under the Omnibus listing.

Since I’ll be talking about Eliot Ness this week, I’ll remind you that Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is available on Blu-ray now at Amazon.

It’s also available on DVD for $9.99.

Reviews for Untouchable Life at Amazon are also appreciated. We only have two at the moment, and no one has specifically talked about the Blu-ray.

Also, the entire five-book Mallory series will be available for 99-cents each as Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle book deals from now through the end of August. Included in the sale will be the thriller Regeneration by Barb and me (as “Barbara Allan”), also at 99-cents.

The Mallory titles are: No Cure for Death; The Baby Blue Rip-off; Kill Your Darlings; A Shroud for Aquarius; and Nice Weekend for a Murder.

* * *

Is it undignified to celebrate the career of a law enforcement icon who could not be bribed by offering a giveaway, and hawking various titles pertaining to him? I don’t really care, since I never claimed to be untouchable myself.

But Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (it has a subtitle but I decline to use it, because I dislike it intensely) marks the final stage of an interest in the real-life lawman that reaches back into my childhood. My interest in such things begins even before the first Untouchables of two installments on Desilu Playhouse aired on April 20, 1959. The Dick Tracy comic strip (by way of comic book reprints) had ignited that interest; but, in fairness, since Ness was the real-life basis of Chester Gould’s Tracy, the Untouchable was already in the mix.

There’s no question that Tracy and Ness got me interested in stories about detectives, but more significantly The Untouchables TV series (and the autobiographical book that spawned it) got me interested in the factual material that generated so much of the guns-and-gangster pulp fiction I adored. My novel True Detective (1983), after all, deals with the same crime – the assassination of Mayor Cermak – as a two-part Untouchables episode I saw as a kid. Granted, that two-parter only nodded at history, but that nod was enough to get my attention.

Ness became the Pat Chambers to Nathan Heller’s Mike Hammer in a number of the Heller novels. At the request of an editor at Bantam, I spun Ness off into the four novels that dealt with his Cleveland years (previously explored, somewhat inaccurately, in Oscar Fraley’s Untouchables follow-up, Four Against the Mob, but otherwise little written about).

Two things are, I think, significant about those novels, including that they represent the first time actual cases of this real-life American detective had been the basis of stories about him (excluding the initial two-part telefilm). More importantly, the writing of the books led to research by myself and George Hagenauer that uncovered new (or at least forgotten) information about Ness.

In addition to his occasional role in the Nathan Heller saga, Ness appeared in my graphic novel Road to Perdition (drawn by the great Richard Piers Rayner) and in my prose sequel, Road to Purgatory (available from Brash Books). The latter, to some degree, dealt with Ness’s little-known role in fighting venereal disease on military bases and elsewhere during World War II.

For unknown reasons, Ness was not depicted in the film version of Road to Perdition, but that nonetheless led to the play (and 2007 video production of) Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. Initially, actor Michael Cornelison and I were planning to do a one-man show about Perdition antagonist John Looney. We intended to mount it in Rock Island (where Looney had been the local crime boss in the early Twentieth Century) and shoot the film in one of the two existing houses were Looney had lived.

Somewhere along the line, one of us – it may have been Mike – suggested that Ness would have greater appeal to a wider national audience. Also, over the years I had heard from editors and readers that I should do a non-fiction treatment of Ness, since I had done so much research into and about him. Much of what George and I uncovered about Ness was making its way into the accounts of non-fiction writers (fiction writers, too) without credit.

As an independent filmmaker, looking for productions that could be produced cheaply but well, I found a one-man show appealing. I also had the possibility of a grant from Humanities Iowa, for whom I’d made an appearance at a University of Iowa event with editorial cartoonist, Paul Conrad. We mounted the play at the Des Moines Playhouse, where we shot the film between performances. My eventual co-author Brad Schwartz saw the play and that sparked our collaboration.

I had intended An Untouchable Life to be my final statement on Ness. While it is written from Ness’s point of view, skewed to his own memories and perceptions of his life, and some dramatic liberties were taken (by both Ness and me!), the play represents the most accurate depiction of Ness on screen to date.

Eventually, however, Brad convinced me to join him in writing the definitive biography of Ness. We embarked on doing that only to discover another, apparently major Ness biography was about to come out. I had once considered doing a massive, Godfather-style novel on both Capone and Ness, cutting back and forth between their stories. Now I suggested we follow that approach, but in a strictly non-fiction fashion. That would set us apart from any Ness bio or Capone bio, for that matter.

Obviously that approach – particularly since we intended to do cradle-to-grave accounts of both men – turned out to be too big for one book. Now we have a two-volume work that I feel confident is the definite treatment of the life of Eliot Ness. The research George and I did for the novels has been greatly enhanced by further research, much of it by my co-author, who crisscrossed the country in his efforts, even talking to surviving friends and associates of the long-deceased lawman.

It must be said that I have written about several different Eliot Nesses. The Ness of the Heller books serves a specific function – he is Heller’s conscience, the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. The portrayal darkens in Angel in Black and Do No Harm. The Eliot Ness Omnibus of Cleveland novels is a basically accurate but somewhat romanticized version of Ness – far closer to reality than Robert Stack, but splitting the difference between them. The same is true of Ness in Road to Perdition and Road to Purgatory. Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is only slightly romanticized, and (in my view at least) portrays him as he saw himself.

The real Ness can be found in Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (and Scarface and the Untouchable). My co-author and I did not always agree on what – or who – the research added up to. We wrestled our way into a joint presentation that is probably more accurate than if either of us had been turned loose alone.

I can look at these two works and feel that, at last, I have done right by this complex real-life Dick Tracy. With the publication of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher, with the recent publication of Do No Harm (which ends Ness’s story in the world of Nate Heller), and with the four Ness-in-Cleveland novels gathered into Omnibus form, I feel I’ve come full circle.

* * *

Here’s a great Wall Street Journal review. Here is the link, but it requires a subscription to read.

‘Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher’: An Untouchable Second Act

After helping to put Al Capone behind bars, lawman Eliot Ness came to Cleveland, where he did battle with a vicious killer.

Moviegoers of a certain age will remember Eliot Ness—the upright law-enforcement figure who battled corruption and organized crime from the 1920s to the ’40s—as portrayed by a tough-talking Kevin Costner in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables.” Television viewers from an even earlier era will recall Ness depicted by the stern-faced Robert Stack in the ABC series (1959-63) of the same name. But the real-life Ness, as revealed in Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz’s “Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher,” was less the hard-boiled hero of popular culture than a humane and forward-thinking lawman as interested in preventing crime as in punishing it.

The Chicago-born Ness (1903-57) came to prominence as a Prohibition agent in the Windy City, doing battle with Al Capone and other bootleggers as head of his own hand-picked squad of agents. His men were dubbed the “Untouchables” for their refusal to accept payoffs or gratuities. As a friend observed of the incorruptible lawman: “Honesty amounted to almost a fetish.”

The government put Capone behind bars in 1932 via the prosecution of a tax-evasion case, but the work of Ness and his men was central to establishing the extent of the mobster’s criminal activities. With Capone out of the picture, the Untouchables were disbanded, and Prohibition ended soon after. Ness, a nationally known figure (his physical and professional image inspired Chester Gould’s comic-strip police hero Dick Tracy), looked beyond Chicago for new opportunity. He found it in Cleveland, the site of his next significant successes—but also of the disturbing case that gives Messrs. Collins and Schwartz’s book its title.

Ness was named Cleveland’s director of public safety in 1935 and was put in charge of the city’s police and fire departments. He found the cops to be sloppy, uncooperative and demoralized. Once more he formed his own discrete unit of Untouchables to weed out incompetent and corrupt officers and hire smart new ones. “Intelligence,” he counseled, “must supplant brutality.”

But even Ness was stumped trying to apprehend the “torso murderer” responsible for a series of ghoulish killings, in which parts of dismembered and beheaded corpses were strewn about the woods and dumpsites of Kingsbury Run, one of the city’s poorest areas. “The mystery of the headless dead” drew national and international attention. In Germany, the Nazi press mocked America’s inability to apprehend the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” With no witnesses and sometimes no way even to identify victims—and with advanced forensics techniques far in the future—police were stymied.

By 1938, the authors write, “the Butcher had become the subject of the largest manhunt in Cleveland’s history.” Thousands of citizens wrote and called the cops with worthless tips. “The investigators, after years of fruitless searching, grew desperate, pursuing ever more eccentric lines of inquiry.” At last a few tantalizing leads brought an alcoholic and mentally disturbed doctor named Francis Sweeney to the attention of the detectives.

Ness and his crew subjected the 44-year-old Sweeney—who had shown signs of psychosis and had been verbally and physically cruel—to judicially inadmissible polygraph examinations that convinced all present of his guilt. Still, despite an abundance of circumstantial indicators, Ness had no hard evidence. Complicating matters was the man’s being a cousin of a local congressman, a vocal Ness critic. Prosecution was not an option. Ness handled the matter privately, helping to arrange Sweeney’s commitment to a mental hospital. Sweeney, who was institutionalized for much of the rest of his life, sent a series of bizarre and taunting postcards to Ness through the mid-1950s.

Though Ness was sure that the killer had been caught and dealt with, he couldn’t officially close the case and so swore himself and his men to secrecy. The public was left with the impression that the culprit might still be at large. The case of the Mad Butcher, with its unsatisfying non-finale, fits a bit awkwardly into Messrs. Collins and Schwartz’s wider narrative. In the latter stages of their book, the authors ably follow Ness through an unsuccessful foray into city politics and a disappointing business career. But given this work’s title and its subtitle—“Hunting America’s Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology”—one sometimes gets the feeling of two different books uneasily hitched.

That said, the authors have done Ness justice. It’s discouraging to learn that a man who refused a fortune in bribes died $9,000 in debt. Shortly before his fatal heart attack at the age of 54, he finished work on the memoir that would revive and romanticize his reputation and bring his third wife and their adopted son a modicum of income.

Messrs. Collins and Schwartz, in this, their second deeply researched book about Ness, don’t gloss over their subject’s failings and blind spots, but they do show that he tried harder than many to leave the world a better place. His “signature achievements in Cleveland—fighting juvenile delinquency, reorganizing the police department, promoting traffic safety—stemmed from a deep well of humanity and compassion,” they write. Now more than ever, the authors conclude, Ness’s name “should remind us of the rigorous standards he brought to law enforcement—professionalism, competence, honor, and decency—and a determination to make everyone safer by addressing the systemic root causes of crime.”

Review by Tom Nolan.

* * *

My favorite Jeopardy! question popped up again on a rerun this week:

MAC on Jeopardy!

Here’s a great interview with my buddy Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime. He mentions me several times, bless him.

Check out this wonderful review of The First Quarry.

M.A.C.

A Typical Day in the Neighborhood

July 28th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

In previous updates, I’ve mentioned that I am currently working with two publishers who are primarily e-book-oriented. One is Wolfpack, where I’ve just sent in my first original novel (co-written with my longtime collaborator Matt Clemens). I am not ready to reveal the title or the genre as yet, but I will say we’ve committed to at least three entries in this new series, and that I’m very pleased and excited with/by this first entry.

Wolfpack ad for Eliot Ness Omnibus

Wolfpack continues to be incredibly supportive. Take a gander at this ad that ran in Publisher’s Weekly for their first publication of my work – The Eliot Ness Mystery Omnibus, which collects the four Ness-in-Cleveland novels. For those of you with Kindles, you can get this omnibus – all four novels – for $2.99 (free for Prime Unlimited members).

Those of who you have already read these and own them in some other form are encouraged to write reviews of the omnibus, which as of now has only a single, lonely review. And Do No Harm, Girl Can’t Help It, Masquerade for Murder, Antiques Fire Sale and Hot Lead, Cold Justice have all kind of stalled out on the review front, so if you haven’t got around to posting yours, doing so would be appreciated.

The other e-book project I’m working on is for a new company that got a splashy welcome fromThe Hollywood Reporter (among others).

I am not ready to reveal what the Neotext project is, other than to say it’s a new detective series with a female lead and that I’m doing three novellas (30,000 words each) about the character. Okay, here’s a few more tidbits – it’s set during World War II, and it will be illustrated by a terrific Hard Case Crime artist, providing not just a cover but one painting per each chapter (ten per novella).

Initially these novellas will be published as e-books, one at a time, with an eye on later collecting them in physical book form. But so far Neotext itself is strictly an e-book publisher.

I am starting work this week on the second novella for Neotext. And Matt and I are meeting, via Zoom, to plot the second novel for Wolfpack. Both publishers have me creating new series, although Wolfpack is also publishing back list (including short story collections) and are up for me continuing existing series…in fact, have signed me to continue both Krista Larson and Reeder & Rogers.

This brings me to the non-promotional (at least not overtly so) portion of this update.

A question I am frequently asked is what my work schedule is – “What’s your typical day?”

In a way, I don’t have a typical day. Each morning does begin about the same, with the usual rising groggily, throwing down a handful of pills, scarfing down a mini-donut or two, guzzling some sparkling juice, and spending half an hour or so in my recliner watching Morning Joe (I’m a liberal – get over it).

Barb, in her neighboring recliner, always says, “Tell me about your day in the greatest of detail.” And I share my best-laid plans before the day proceeds to do whatever the hell it feels like.

When I am bunkered in writing a novel, which is most of the time, I attempt to write in the morning with lunch arriving no earlier than 11 a.m. and no later than noon. We used to go out for it, but now we rustle up our own (yes, I help in the kitchen, though my efforts are somewhat pathetic). When lunch happens depends on how my writing is going and, of course, how Barb’s writing is going. Barb has to get her writing done in the morning, as she is providing Day Care for our two grandkids a few houses up the street from one p.m. till shortly after five. I write all afternoon.

But fulltime freelance writing is a small business and both of us have to deal with business stuff as well as feed our muses – Barb in particular handles the financial side of things. But I have editors and agents and collaborators to deal with, and when galley proofs arrive I generally have to set my work schedule aside and deal with that aspect of things.

Between novels I do my best to attend to smaller projects, like short stories and the intros to the IDW Dick Tracy collections. I also always clean my office, which deteriorates to disaster-level proportions as a novel progresses – scattered research volumes, wadded-up paper on the floor, discarded drafts of pages and even chapters, and so on.

Also intruding on the actual writing are the requests for interviews, which I mostly try to handle via e-mail, but which sometimes require the phone or Skype or Zoom. These updates are written either Sunday evening, late, or first thing Monday. The longer ones sometime drain my energy to the point that no other significant writing gets done that day.

My pattern has changed radically over the years. As some of you may recall, for much of my professional life I was a night person who did most of his writing starting around midnight, going to bed at eight or nine a.m. and sleeping till noon. I had enormous energy as a younger person, needing little sleep; most nights I wrote a finished chapter, including long ones like those in a Nate Heller novel. But when we did the Mommy movies, and I had to rise at six a.m. or so – the director has to be first on the set and last to leave – my inner clock got changed. Ever since, I’ve rarely risen any later than eight a.m. or so. Now, as an old man (goddamnit!), I sometimes wake as early as six a.m.

And I hate it.

On such mornings, I start writing early, even before Barb gets up. So there are factors that come in, as you may have already noticed, that mean there is no really typical day.

On the other hand, sheltering in place for the corona virus has made one day seem much like another. Oddly, for Barb and me, time is passing more quickly, which seems like the opposite of what you’d expect.

* * *

The Quarry series was selected by Crime Reads as one of ten most binge-worthy series of the 1970s, which is a nice honor. In the comments, I corrected the assumption that the Memphis setting of the TV series is the same as the books.

Here is the opening sentence of a patronizing review of the Johnny Dynamite collection: “The opening introduction by writer Max Allan Collins is more a biographical essay about writer Frank Morrison Spillane (alias Micky Spillane) and writer/artist Pete Morisi. Not to mention it is excessively long. (Then again the title of this collection is also excessively long.) Though Collins’s introduction should please those wanting more knowledge about the subjects’ lives and/or the early comic book industry. While the introduction by artist Terry Beatty is of reasonable length it has one or two sentences that are a little clunky.”

I have a few thoughts to share. First, what other kind of introduction is there but an “opening” one? Second, if you’re going to be dismissive about Mickey Spillane’s role in this collection, at least spell his name right (not “Micky”). If you’re going to accuse my co-editor of writing a “clunky” sentence, perhaps you should learn to write in complete sentences yourself. Do you wonder why reviews like this irritate me?

On the other hand, here is Ed Catto’s terrific (and well-written) review of that same book, interspersed with quotes from an interview I gave Ed.

Here’s a brief, positive review of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher – the non-fiction follow-up to Scarface and the Untouchable by A. Brad Schwartz and myself that will be published…next week!

Finally, the “lost gem” that is my single Batman comic strip continuity (with the late great Marshal Rogers) is discussed here.

M.A.C.

Two Jakes and the Fifth Mason

July 21st, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

Barb and I send our deepest condolences to our friend and partner, Jane Spillane, whose grandson Justin died over the weekend. He was a victim of the Coronavirus and only 33.

If you wish to send your positive thoughts to Jane, I suggest you do so here, in the comments section, where she will see them. Fans of Mickey and Mike Hammer owe everything to Jane for her dedication in seeing her late husband’s work celebrated and completed.

* * *
The Two Jakes Blu-Ray Cover

In these dark days, being pleasantly surprised is a rarity. But my eyes – and my day – lit up when I learned that the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, would soon be released on Blu-ray disc on September 15. And it’s only $9.99…right here.

That only leaves the 1953 3-D I, the Jury to find a home on Blu-ray to mean all my video white whales have been harpooned.

So this week, rather than remind you how important it is for you to review my novels at Amazon, I am selflessly hawking someone else’s product. Because I am at heart a fan. No. A shameless fan. I particularly like loving movies I’m not supposed to. I love Shock Treatment, for example, the sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think Start the Revolution Without Me is the funniest film ever made, and most of you haven’t even heard of it. I think both I, the Jury films are terrific, and I don’t even care that Mickey Spillane himself didn’t agree with me. And I hate E.T., Grease and Saturday Night Fever, so sue me.

So I am here today to try to talk sense into you and convince you that – after you pre-order Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher – you also pre-order the Blu-ray of The Two Jakes.

These are my 2012 thoughts on The Two Jakes:

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.

(2020 note: Phillip Lambro’s original Chinatown score – under the title Los Angeles, 1937is available on CD at Amazon and perhaps a few other venues. It’s interesting but not a patch on Goldsmith. A combo of both the Chinatown and The Two Jakes scores is available on Amazon as well, pricey; but listening to it has warmed me somewhat to the Parks score.)

Nonetheless, The Two Jakes deserves its own 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.

Meanwhile, back in 2020….

Check out Kevin Burton Smith’s thoughts on The Two Jakes (at his great Thrilling Detective Web Site), which includes defenses from Roger Ebert, Terrill Lankford, and Frederick Zackel.

My opinion of The Two Jakes has, if anything risen over the years. Every time I watch it – and I’ve seen it perhaps eight times – I find deeper resonance. I still wish a longer cut existed, including a more satisfying, complete resolution of the various mysteries, including the Noah Cross-like character. But that unfinished aspect of the narrative only makes it fit more snugly into the Chinatown theme that Gittes, for all his mastery of the muddy waters he swims in, is again in over his head.

I cannot think of a private eye film since Chinatown that is better than The Two Jakes, and I cannot think of a private eye movie better than The Two Jakes that has appeared since.

People often assume that Chinatown had a good deal to do with my creation of Nate Heller in True Detective (the original title of which was meant to be Tower Town). And I suppose that’s true, although I had already created Heller as a proposed comic strip character in a Depression-era setting, and come to the realization that the private eye had been around long enough to exist in an historical context.

What Chinatown inspired me to try to accomplish was to bring an emotional resonance to the private eye story – and to other crime stories with a tough everyman protagonist, whether private eye or not. To accomplish between the covers of a book the power of Chinatown or Vertigo, to be surprising and moving and touch something deep. I like to think that Nate Heller, over the course of what has become a saga, has done (and continues to do) that. Maybe Quarry, too, but at more of a distance.

* * *

I am still watching Perry Mason on HBO. Why do I continue the suffering? It’s a combination of professional curiosity – they are working my side of the street, after all – and I am a longtime Perry Mason/Raymond Burr/Erle Stanley Gardner fan and just can’t help myself.

The fifth episode finally showed some promise, but the series remains its own worst enemy. Beautifully shot, generally well-acted – though its score is a lazy embarrassment (I described it elsewhere as random piano chords and a trumpet player trying to remember the Chinatown theme and failing) – it insists on portraying a dour world with a dour protagonist. Additionally, it stubbornly swamps the good will its famous name brings by wallowing in political correctness – Della Street is a lesbian, of course. God help us if they reboot I Love Lucy.

A major problem remains a jarring insistence on using the “f” word with the casualness of today in a visually accurate rendition of yesterday. Among the anachronisms in the dialogue of episode five are “throwing shade on” and “enablers.” Yeah, sounds just like The Front Page, doesn’t it?

But at least (and if you haven’t seen episode five, consider yourself Spoiler Alerted) they moved Mason himself closer to the Gardner premise, i.e., he is on the threshold of becoming a defense lawyer. They do it cleverly, by having Mason pass the Bar Exam after being schooled privately and secretly (albeit in public) by an assistant D.A. on the make – a guy named Hamilton Burger. Now I guessed this the moment the new actor walked into the diner where the schooling begins, and I smiled. Finally. Something resonant and clever.

And then Burger starts giving Perry one example of the kind of legal problem typical of the exam and we fade out, and suddenly Mason – at last clean-shaven and not in his rumpled leather jacket – is being sworn in as an attorney. But this comes after Burger hasn’t even finished asking Mason that one question!

Yet the same episode spent much more time showing Paul Drake – you remember, Paul, the African-American uniformed cop? – and his pregnant wife and friends lounging on a Santa Monica beach, causing no trouble, only to be rousted off by another (not African-American) cop…cut to Paul crying in bed and his wife comforting him. I’m guessing this obvious, plot-free sequence lasts three or four times as long as the one in which Perry Mason is…trained to become a lawyer!

Maybe, maybe, maybe if they can get the gloom out of their system, and get this guy into a suit and a tie and a courtroom, Matthew Rhys can become Perry Mason – his acting improves when he has more to do than feel sorry for himself, as when he gets tough with a shyster. For now, the good is drowning in the bad, and even the gifted Orphan Black star, Tatiana Maslany, seems lost in her role as an Aimee Semple Mcpherson-style evangelist. Am I phony? she seems to be wondering. Or a real visionary? Or maybe a money-grubbing charlatan always in on the scam? Who knows? Clearly not this talented actress.

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.