The Two Jakes is less a sequel and more of a flamboyant continuation and expansion of the sun kissed noir universe of Los Angeles that Polanski brought to life in Chinatown. Everyone knows a project of this type had no chance of working without the creative involvement of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, all of whom were reunited. Whereas Chinatown was a subversion of film genre, expressly the traditions of film noir, a resolutely anti-genre piece shot like a European art film, very much like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Two Jakes is unashamedly and resolutely a homage to the great riches of Hollywood film noir. It is well documented that Towne’s script for Chinatown went through numerous brutal changes, many of which Towne fought but ultimately could not prevent given Polanski’s authorial control. In many ways, The Two Jakes, is closer to Towne’s original vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling festering wound alluded to in interviews, mapping a broader nexus between oil, land and money, in which an underbelly of corruption and violence continually rises to the surface as a familiar subtext.
What makes The Two Jakes such a worthy successor to Chinatown is arguably the iconographic amplifications of noir and the endlessly pleasurable ways in which pastiche becomes a celebratory enterprise; a pulpy cinematic novel played out in classical film noir encounters. Towne draws the inevitable links back to Mulwray and Cross, framing Gittes as a broken, guilt ridden figure haunted by a murky past of incest and ownership, and who retains his self-righteous contempt for the police and big business. The startling LA art decor production design, dazzling costumes and widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond are the real stars along with a rich supporting cast made up of Harvey Kietel, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach. Fatalism remains at the core as does the theme of flawed masculinity, although eclipsed by a perpetual sense of post war trauma. I wonder what Polanski would have made of it all?
Released in 1954, Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young, a neglected British-American hybrid noir, relates a post office robbery through a series of flashbacks in which we are introduced to the four central protagonists who collectively come to signify a masculinity in crisis; a new post war malaise. It is worth noting that Gilbert’s noir preceded Kubrick’s The Killing, a film which is considered to be far superior and more revered. And in some respects, Gilbert’s film likely influenced The Killing expressly in the ending where the last of the four protagonists meets his death on the airport tarmac while clutching banknotes in a heavy handed symbolic gesture. Kubrick repeats this doomed ending but with greater clarity and imagination.
While the flashback structure in The Killing is resolutely mechanical and the fatalism resonates with a tangible brutality, Gilbert’s approach bears an equivalent pessimism about post war Western society, much of it amplified through the slimy figure of a posh playboy and sociopath essayed by Laurence Harvey with a venal, rascally delight. With a strong cast populated by the likes of Stanley Baker and Richard Basehart, Gilbert’s noir holds its own against classic noir films such as The Killing and could arguably be shoe horned into a cycle of films that preceded the British New Wave film movement that was to emerge in the late 1950s.
This uncomplicated hot garbage from solid genre filmmaker Peter Hyams who often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of competent Hollywood mainstream cinema plays more like an updating than a remake of Fleischer’s original 1950s noir. Hyams is careful not to stretch this out, steering clear of letting it become a two hour overcooked melodrama, which it clearly could have morphed into. The premise is paper thin and overly conventional; an incorruptible, hard ass DA has to protect a witness from getting murdered by the mob on a train. However, what ensues for roughly ninety minutes is a hypnotically enjoyable cat and mouse thriller in which Gene Hackman foils the efforts of two sinister hitmen who roam the train carriages in cowboy boots with semi-automatics.
The weak link is the presence of Anne Archer who was pretty rubbish in most of the things she starred in and the zero on screen chemistry with Hackman. None of that really matters though considering Hyams, also on camera duty, succeeds in creating a sense of real time action, along with the idea of a narrative deadline taken to its natural extremes while dispensing with dialogue in large parts of the film. In some respects, where the film falters is when the script is allowed to speak, reiterating a litany of clichés. Moreover, the final sequence in the courtroom seems unnecessary, tacked on simply to let Hackman’s earlier gag regarding the ‘tightening of shirt collars’ come to fruition with a ridiculous visual confirmation. A diligent, underrated exercise in the economy of genre.
In the traditional film noir universe the destruction of the male protagonist is manifested in a downward spiral of paranoia, guilt and death. And it becomes a virtual impossibility to attain redemption. No matter what one does to rectify an earlier regret usually leads to certain calamity from which there is no return. Thematically, a noir continually invests in the psychology of power and desire, returning to a morality, which is often framed, in capitalistic terms. Marriage, betrayal, adultery, masculinity, and all of the above steadily rise to the surface in director Munish Bhardwaj’s gripping slice of Delhi noir, in which Aman (Ranvir Shorey), a contemptibly low life real estate broker, is sucked wholly into a whirlpool of greed. What makes this slice of urban noir somewhat idiosyncratic is the locale of an affluent Delhi middle class desperate to get ahead in a morally dubious neoliberal capitalist India. Everyone is flawed and so they should be, after all this is a noir. Aman’s world, a corruptible milieu of back end real estate dealings, is made altogether worse by a repugnant exhibition of ethics.
Even Divya (Neha Dhupia), Aman’s wife, concealing her own terrible secret while castigating Aman for harbouring his lies, expounds a sordid marital and familial hypocrisy. And it is Divya’s marital betrayal that neuters the wounded masculinity of Aman, another trait of the doomed noir male protagonist, threatened earlier by the violence of Raghveer and his goons. Not many films have been made on the topic of white-collar crime in contemporary Indian cinema, surprising since the world of economics especially business is often romanticised in popular Hindi cinema as a stylish, apolitical accessory. Bhardwaj and Mansi Jain’s script acutely taps into disquieting anxieties notably social mobility, problematized as a kind of middle class syndrome representative of a new generation of Delhi socialites. If Aman is coded as a Yuppie, he is also like a modern-day vampire, sucking the life out of those around him so he can get ahead. And while Aman foolishly pretends he can remain immortal in a world from which there is no escape, he realises a little too late that his desperation to get ahead is contradicted by a guilt that consumes both him and Divya.
Munish Bhardwaj adopts an understated directorial approach which often best suits the melodrama form. But he also keeps in check the risk of tipping into sentimentality, a major problem with the domestic melodrama, instead confidently weaving together a narrative that switches back and forth as a means of exploring the moral choices and personal dilemmas that define this consuming, corrupted world of Delhi noir.