If I were hard-pressed as a fan of film to make with some of the most memorable quotes from classic cinema then I would have to include somewhere on that Top Ten list (probably between selected quotes from Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life and Gone with the Wind) one of the closing lines from director Roman Polanski’s 1974 film noir masterpiece, Chinatown: “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Those words from actor Joe Mantell, playing the partner of gumshoe private dick Jake Gittes (also known as some bloke named Jack Nicholson) encapsulate the dark world of cynicism, double-crosses, red herrings and dangerous ingenue’s as put forth in this 1930s set mystery where a P.I. investigating a husband’s suspected infidelities gets way more than he bargained for. Small wonder then that, during the height of the Watergate scandal, the Polanski-Robert Towne scripted magnum opus resounded for an equally world weary battalion of cinephiles.
In 1990, Paramount Studios commissioned a sequel to Chinatown called The Two Jakes which not only brought Jack Nicholson back as Jake Giddes but also firmly placed him in the director’s chair. Although Roman Polanski sat this caper out, Robert Towne returned as a writer, following returning legendary producer Robert Evans back into a world that was originally popularized in the 1930s in pulp novels and film and which certainly reached its zenith in 1941’s John Huston directed adaptation of hard boiled P.I. Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) misadventures in the exquisite The Maltese Falcon. Clearly the public at large during the waning last decade of the twentieth century still felt an affinity for not only Jake Giddes, but also the nostalgia drenched world that he inhabited like a cheap suit (channeling my inner Raymond Chandler there, folks). For the encore ride through his gin soaked, Lucky Strike smoke infested hell, Nicholson was joined by a stellar cast that included the likes of Eli Wallach, Harvey Keitel and Madeleine Stowe. Though not a box office hit like its predecessor, and roundly and unfairly drubbed by the critics of its day, The Two Jakes has enjoyed a happy reassessment by reviewers and film fans alike and, in hindsight, has actually added to the legend of the original Chinatown.
In a new and twisted turn that would have left the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane punchy, Netflix sources just broke the story with The Hollywood Reporter that the streaming giant is commissioning a Chinatown pilot for what might just turn out to be a prequel series to the original film masterpiece. Certain to make most fans of the first film nervous, the news was offset with the announcement that original writer Robert Towne would be doing a mean rumba of a return to pen the pilot along with heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock (himself no stranger to the landscape of film noir), David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac, The Game).
And what would hard-luck detective Jake Giddes be up to prior to having his heart broken by Evelyn Cross Mulwray (a resplendent and impossibly young Faye Dunaway in the Polanski directed flick) in Chinatown? According to our friends over at The Hollywood Reporter, Jake will be up to his proverbial gun holster in cases involving L.A.’s one percent and the overall corruption of the 30s era City of Angels (that’s Los Angeles, CA for those of you more routinely versed in 21st Century Millennial speak, capeech?). Advices report that Towne, Fincher and Josh Donen (who worked with Finch on Gone Girl and House of Cards) will executive produce this period drama/mystery if the script for the prequel is ordered to series.
Although the impending series has great pedigree, this writer being a professional handwringer of the first order can’t help but envision a similar fate which befell another more recent and beloved film, 1997’s L.A. Confidential which, after an impressive showing critically and commercially, also got a television series tryout just recently in 2018 with an unsold pilot, a fate worse than that of Mickey Rourke’s destined for damnation film noir detective, Harry Angel in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. Even if Chinatown gets the greenlight from the Netflix Powers-That-Be, can it possibly ever step out of the deservedly long shadow of its film ancestor? And come on, was there ever a better Jake Geddes than good old Jack Nicholson? So many variables for potential disaster and only one or two possible clear paths for success; perhaps I should take a cue from the likes of Mike Hammer and Jeff Bailey and make like a high ball and just get frosty. Or, like a resigned Michael O’Hara in Lady from Shanghai once famously espoused about a dame he just couldn’t take his mind off of, “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.” I’ll try and give this new look at an old love the once over before pouring myself and a whole bar full of cannon-shooters another drink and toasting to old loves not forgotten.