If Raymond Chandler had ever been possessed by Shakespeare’s ghost, the result might’ve been something like Chinatown, as perfect a movie as any ever made. It’s probably the only detective tale that’s also a tragedy for the ages and it might have been only a nifty neo-noir, if not for the occasionally dissonant sensibilities of writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski,recalled in an hour of new featurettes here. The plot twists ultimately hinge on the trust or lack thereof between cocky PI Jake Gittes (Nicholson) and his vulnerable client (Faye Dunaway). Polanski says Towne didn’t want the two to sleep together…which Towne denies. But all agree that Polanski begrudgingly working in L.A. for the first time since the 1969 murder of his wife, Sharon Tate insisted on twisting Towne’s less fatalistic original finale into one of filmdom’s most profoundly unhappy endings. Amazingly, the 1974 masses didn’t mind: The convolutions, wisecracks, and evocation of a golden ’30s L.A. represented the most pleasurable trip to hell audiences ever had.
When a Towne-scripted, Nicholson directed sequel, The Two Jakes, appeared 16 years later, cinephiles and critics muttered, “Forget it, Jake it’s not Chinatown.” Its tortured history of false starts and infighting is only glancingly alluded to in this disc’s 18-minute supplement, where sole interviewee Nicholson remains proud of his directorial effort not unreasonably. Jakes is often cited alongside Godfather Part III as a warning against returning to a classic too belatedly, and Towne’s story revolving around a seemingly murderous thug (Harvey Keitel) and his mysterious wife (an insufficiently enigmatic Meg Tilly) could have used Polanski, again, to find a way to make the stakes devastatingly personal for Jake. But for everything that’s wrong, other things go deliciously right: Vilmos Zsigmond’s period photography; multiple earthquakes that only an L.A.-phile like Nicholson could have nailed; a weirdly funny tryst between a freshly pummeled Jack and a voracious Madeleine Stowe. You can complain that Jakes devalues an iconic original, but some of us will trade that for the privilege of spending another 2 1⁄4 hours in such a lovingly re-created lost world. Chinatown: A Jakes: B