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.

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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.

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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.

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15 Responses to “Two Jakes and the Fifth Mason”

  1. Craig Zablo says:

    I am so sorry for the loss of Justin and hope that Jane Spillane gets some comfort from the wonderful memories I am sure she has of better times with him. Thanks to her for also supporting her husband’s work which brought me and countless others joy. Wishing her the best in these trying times.

  2. stephen borer says:

    My prayers to Jane Spillane .

  3. Paul.Griffith says:

    My heartfelt condolences to you Jane. I pray for peace and comfort to be with you during this tragic time of loss. I also want to thank you for the many hours of enjoyment you have allowed me to have while reading Mickey’s unfinished works. Max has done a remarkable job with his collaboration and fantastic insight of that work. While I am looking forward to more books in the future, I am keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Jerry House says:

    It is always hard to lose someone, more so when the person is so young. My deepest sympathy to Jane Spillane and to Justin’s friends and family.

    Thank you, Max, for passing on this news and for your friendship with and support of Jane during this time.

  5. Mike Doran says:

    I’m afraid this is going to be about notPerry Mason.
    That’s becoming my mantra as I watch this mess each week.
    (Yeah, yeah, I’m One Of Those.)
    The “Creative Team” that’s ratcheting this together thinks they’re reinventing the wheel; why they think putting oblique corners in it will work is beyond me.
    It’s not just the heavy reliance on currently fashionable cussing and gratuitous gore and unpleasant sex (truth to tell, I kind of expected that going in).
    Changing the well-known characters into their exact opposites – expected that too, although the C.T. really went wild in that direction.
    (Come on, now: can you see this Paul Drake becoming the ebullient bachelor who always greeted Della with a cheery “Hi, Beautiful!”
    Or for that matter, this Della accepting such a greeting with anything other than a slap in the face?)
    And this story:
    When in his life did Erle Stanley Gardner ever draw out any story to this agonizing length?
    Uncle Erle always said that his stories were based on “speed, situation, and suspense”.
    Check the novels, even the earliest ones – ESG always hit the ground running.
    The C.T. here is (to use a phrase I heard years ago) “going from Minneapolis to St. Paul by way of Kansas City”.
    I suppose that they’re trying for “significance” or something like it – something that ESG never really cared about (at least not in the modern (?) sense).
    As I said above, I’m sticking with notPerry to the bitter end – and I have no doubt that this end will be very bitter indeed.

    I’ve gotta go back to the stacks and find the early Mason novel that begins with Perry saying to Della, “Gosh, Della, can’t you scare me up a good mystery?”
    Della to Perry: ” … you can’t have dessert all the time. You have to have some bread and butter.”
    Perry to Della: ” … I want meat, Della. Red meat, and lots of it!”
    (Quote approximate; it’s one of the early ’30s books – and if anybody can come up with it off hand, I’d be duly grateful.)

    Your new stuff, when it finally comes out, will be welcome indeed.
    Of course, there’s still the Presidential Demolition Derby to occupy our time …
    … no, let’s not dwell on that …
    At times like this, I sort of wish I still followed baseball –
    – no, let’s not dwell on that, either …
    The Spinach Festival continues!

    ‘Til the next time we see each other, just remember the immortal words of Col. Lemuel Q Stoopnagle:
    “If it wasn’t for half the people in the country, the other half would be all of them.”

  6. Dan Collins says:

    I have not seen Start the Revolution Without Me in years. Thanks for the tip I’m going to find it somewhere.

  7. Michael says:

    Condolences

  8. Patrick Golden says:

    Agree with placing Chinatown as the best P.I. film. Really enjoyed the recent book on its creation and Hollywood at that time. Gives more background than I ever knew. Also makes you think director Polanski should have won the Oscar for the screenplay. Also agree The Two Jakes is better than it is often believed. I, too, wish the trilogy would have been completed. Perhaps as Hollywood is casting backwards for ideas now it might be. Let’s hope.

  9. Robert says:

    I too love start the Revolution Without Me. Learn how to talk like a French man

  10. Sean Kelly says:

    I saw The Two Jakes at the theater and enjoyed it enough to see it again when it hit the second-run screens. I thought it was a good coda to the original.

    My HS English teacher showed her classes Start the Revolution Without Me during the Tale of Two Cities unit. Almost everyone from that school in suburban Chicago could quote the movie verbatim.

    And let me add my condolences to the Spillane family. I wish them peace and comfort.

  11. Fred Blosser says:

    Dark days indeed. Please add Donna, our kids, and me to those who offer sincerest condolences to Jane Spillane for her loss.

    THE TWO JAKES is a much underrated movie. This was the right way to pick up a character nearly two decades on, in a way that you sensed a real history between the first encounter in 1933 and the second in 1948. (Underscored by the wrinkles and weight that Nicholson, Joe Mantell, Perry Lopez, and their characters had accumulated in the interim.) Spielberg and Lucas should have taken notes for the terrible CRYSTAL SKULLS, and Abrams for the miserable STAR WARS sequels.

  12. THE TWO JAKES is a much underrated movie. This was the right way to pick up a character nearly two decades on, in a way that you sensed a real history between the first encounter in 1933 and the second in 1948.

  13. Peter says:

    I loved The Two Jakes and want to HEAR it on blu-ray. The reason? I am from Southern California, and am well versed in earthquakes. There is such an event within the film and like the real ones, it begins with a rumble and a bit of a shake. I am not sure how they did it, but while I first watched the film (in the theater) there was enough reality in the moment to make me think that we were experiencing a real quake. I am sure it had something to do with the sound.

    The film is better as time goes on. It was the second of a planned trilogy that alas did not occur. Watching Jake age and change as they anticipated through the three would have been wonderful. I am also disappointed that no one sought to novelize the films, but I understand that they wanted it to be a movie experienced only as that genre.

  14. Ed Morrissey says:

    Please accept my sincerest condolences to the Spillane family.

    And I still think the new Perry Mason series is a plotless mess.

  15. Thank you for these lovely words of condolence for Jane Spillane.

    It heartens me to find so many others who see the worth of THE TWO JAKES and, also, START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME. As Gene Wilder once said, “And for my brother?”

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