*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jack Nicholson

Written by Robert Towne

With Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, and Madeleine Stowe.

Jack Nicholson is no Roman Polanski, so right from the start it was unlikely that The Two Jakes was going to equal the achievement of Chinatown. Aside from his stylistic flamboyance, the Polish-born Polanski brought a palpable sense of anxiety to the 1974 feature, a visually eloquent demonstration of humanity’s inability to manage its own evil. Using the classic Hollywood image of the private eye as knight errant, Chinatown gave us a hero who rose above his own squalid circumstances (Nicholson’s Jake Gittes was really nothing more than a keyhole peeper) to defend a threatened maiden–only to fail, and to fail utterly and tragically.

However, as a mounting onslaught of features and interviews has been reminding us since The Two Jakes began to sputter into production more than two years ago, all the desolate action of Chinatown unfolded against the vivid backdrop of Los Angeles’s urban development, itself a tale of massive greed and woe. Eleven years later Jake Gittes finds himself entangled once more in a web of chicanery, only this time oil instead of water is the object.

Screenwriter Robert Towne, who is said to have objected to the downbeat ending to Chinatown that Polanski substituted for his original happy one, has once more provided a yarn in which the private and public lives of the characters dovetail with grim inevitability. In 1948, just as in 1937, Jake Gittes finds himself the victim of a messy con, set up with a fake divorce case that leads directly to huge land swindles and then back to a doomed intimacy. Once more, little snippets of overheard conversation and seemingly chance bits of information conspire to bring the past into the present. Somehow Katherine Mulwray, the daughter/sister of Chinatown’s Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), is involved in the case. Jake Gittes has a chance to go back to a failure and pull out a success.

Even though Towne feuded over directorial rewrites with Nicholson (who is said to have favored Polanski’s script changes), in a way the screenwriter got his revenge this time out: Jake is going to set things right somehow. If Chinatown insisted that evil was too pervasive to overcome, The Two Jakes holds out the admittedly forlorn hope that nothing is ever settled.

Yet it is easy to see why Towne may be discomfited by The Two Jakes, because this meditation on the past is less an essay on the mutability of good and evil than on the way the past and present frequently occupy the same space. In other words, this is Jack Nicholson’s movie.

The subject of any actor-director is to one extent or another himself–or, more properly perhaps, his self–and Nicholson presents a rather daunting subject. Since Terms of Endearment, the actor has succumbed to a longstanding temptation to showboat rather than act, a tendency in actors that the public and the Academy have always been all too willing to reward. Sometimes this is an appropriate response to the material at hand, and a talented director can turn Nicholson’s hamminess to the film’s advantage, as George Miller did with The Witches of Eastwick. However, too often Nicholson’s showiness has been a distracting end in itself, degenerating at its worst to the clownish and puerile grandstanding of Batman.

Of course, something about stardom requires this kind of self-abasement. The opportunities to connect with worthy material are undoubtedly rare (though Nicholson did squash a deal with Orson Welles with his high salary demands), and the lure of easy money and light work are omnipresent. Still, within the exclusive and specialized world of movie stardom, Nicholson has generally acquitted himself well.

Much as Jake Gittes, keyhole peeper, has. “It’s not a reputable business, but I’m a reputable person,” Gittes says of his job and himself during The Two Jakes. The remark could apply to acting and Nicholson just as well. In fact, the movie is full of eerie parallels. Just as Nicholson has prospered over the last decade, so has Gittes, rising from semi-successful snoop to the proprietor of a full-scale detective agency. “I don’t want to live in the past, but I don’t want to lose it either,” Gittes states. Nicholson could say the same about taking on the role of Gittes again.

And Jake Gittes is a role that Nicholson can be said to literally take on. Donning the baggy double-breasted suits and bent fedora Gittes prefers, Nicholson does not so much act Gittes as inhabit him. Given Nicholson’s recent rhetorical excesses, it has been easy to forget the nuance he is capable of–but this portrayal encompasses tremendous nuance and detail. Gittes has become fat and sleek with success, and Nicholson wears his character’s clothes the way a man still vain enough to be slightly embarrassed by his weight would. It is Jake Gittes, not Jack Nicholson, who wears his suit coats unbuttoned in the careless hope of camouflaging a paunch, or who sticks to dark colors even while out on the golf course.

One of the film’s preoccupations is the geography of Nicholson’s body, the persistence of intelligence and drive in a body that has ceased to fully respond to commands. When a woman throws herself at Gittes for a passionate bout of sex, the breathless detective, unable to match her physical onslaught, falls back on his voice and stature.

As a detective story and as a strict follow-up to Chinatown, the film is less satisfactory, though it is by no means a failure. The postwar development of the San Fernando Valley and the hunt for oil in the region are handled well. Oddly, it is the close-in aspects of the plot that don’t work as well. The narrative is seeded with surprises that go off with disruptive timing–setting Jake back professionally and personally. While it would be impolitic to describe too much of the plot, since virtually every turn relies on an unexpected revelation, let’s just say that one of the principal bombshells becomes patently obvious long before the film cares to set it off, particularly to anyone familiar with Irish American diminutives.

The second Jake of the title is Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), a real estate developer who hires Gittes and his firm to catch his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly) in the arms of her lover. But when the detectives and their client crash in on the adulteress’s love nest, Berman is enraged to see that her lover is his business partner. Producing a gun, seemingly from nowhere, Berman shoots him.

The whole incident has the air of a setup, and when Gittes is visited by Lillian Bodine (Madeleine Stowe), the hysterical (and somewhat ravenous) widow of the dead man who informs him that she intends to sue him, Gittes begins to gather the evidence that will convict his own client of murder. From that point the race is on, with hoodlums (Ruben Blades), oilmen (Richard Farnsworth), and society lawyers (Frederic Forrest) all trying to encourage or discourage Gittes in his quest. However, none of them can have any real influence over him after he hears, on a tape recording of the lovers just before the murder, the soon-to-be-dead man mention the enchanted name of Katherine Mulwray.

The action unfolds at unwieldy length, with the opening scenes raggedy and abrupt, and the middle sequences long and distended. Partly this is the result of trying to telescope too many direct parallels from the past into the movie’s present. David Keith plays the son of the cop who shot and killed Evelyn Mulwray, reprising the tension his father had with Gittes in a pair of scenes that don’t really add or subtract much from our knowledge of either Gittes or the plot. And though Lillian Bodine is a marvelously conceived and executed depiction of desperation, the frequency and longevity of her presence is not justified by her impact.

But the final third of the film manages to pull itself together for a finely timed gallop. Vilmos Zsigmond, taking his cue from John Alonzo’s work in Chinatown, has provided a canvas that manages a dark clarity, and Gittes works his way through the exurban and suburban landscapes in a groping march. The careful seeding of doubles and foreshadowings finally results, literally, in a destruction that to an extent manages to obliterate some of the shadows cast by the past onto the future.

The climax may take place in blinding sunlight, but the denouement returns to enveloping darkness. Finally, the title itself has a double meaning. Jake Berman is a mirror for Jake Gittes, and Berman is able to enjoy, however fleetingly, a present that Gittes has been denied. But there is another second Jake–Gittes himself, the spectral persona who can never live down his failure. Nicholson has never been able to live down his success. But in returning to his past, he has produced his best performance in nearly a decade, and he has come to terms with that success.