"Chinatown" is a film that at one time stood alone, having no other film to compare it to. It was even a breed apart from the classic black & white film noir/crime films that clearly inspired it. Subsequent attempts to duplicate the feeling of the original have failed. This includes the muddled "Mulholland Falls" and even the "Chinatown" sequel, "The Two Jakes". Much to audience's and critic's surprise, however, two films were released several years apart in the 1990's that did the genre proud in their own distinct way.
"Devil in a Blue Dress" does not put us in the shoes of a hard boiled detective, but instead an earnest WWII veteran named Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington). He used to work at an aircraft plant, but was recently dismissed and is now looking at a stack of bills on his new house with no way to pay them. Then a man named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) offers him big money for a simple job: find out where a woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) disappeared to. Needless to say, things get quickly complicated and dangerous for Easy. So much so that he calls in some backup in the form of his old friend from Houston, Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle). He's going to need all the help he can get before it's all over.
"L.A. Confidential" is the epic story of three very flawed cops in 1950's Los Angeles. There's Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who works with tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito) in order to make glamorous pot busts and get his name in the papers. There's Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), who's dedication to the rules is matched only by his ambition to get ahead. And then there's Bud White (Russell Crowe), a man whose brute force tactics are used to their best advantage by Police Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). All three men's lives will come together through a series of crimes that they must work together in order to solve.
I mention quite a few character in the two synopsis above, and it was an effort to summarize the two films without mentioning more. Like classic Noir films as "The Big Sleep", the flood of character names can sometimes be overwhelming. All the better for a twisty plot where bodies keep floating to the surface and everyone is double-crossing everyone else. "L.A. Confidential" itself has 80 speaking parts. It's a testament to the filmmaking that it's easy enough to keep them all straight. "Devil in a Blue Dress" doesn't have to contend with as many and thus has an simpler time of it. Washington's voiceovers (a classic Noir element that is not found in "Confidential") help to further clarify things when they get murky.
This disparity in amounts of actors correlates to the leads, as well. "Blue Dress" is all about Washington, and he's pretty much on his own until Cheadle shows up half way through. The character of Easy is an everyman who is put into dangerous circumstances, and Denzel plays this very well. His character adapts to the circumstances, but it's clear to both him and the audience that he still needs help. Cheadle, who drew quite few raves at the time for this role, definitely livens up the proceedings with his hair-trigger yet genial character. He's the kind of guy who, as soon as we see his first five minutes on screen, we think, "Denzel's definitely going to come out of this one alive."
The focus on one character with Easy contrasts with the myriad plot threads of "Confidential". All three leads are damn near necessary in order to follow the story. It is truly a tragedy that there's not an ensemble acting category for the Oscars, because the three leads of "Confidential" (particularly Crowe) deserved some recognition for their fine work. Oddly enough, Spacey and Crowe won Best Actor Oscars back-to-back not long after this (for "American Beauty" and "Gladiator"). I hoped that Pearce my get nominated and win for "Memento" soon after to complete the Trifecta, but no dice.
All Noirs require a femme fatale, and both of these films have them. In "Confidential", we have Oscar winner Kim Bassinger. I remain skeptical as to whether Bassinger really deserved an Oscar for this performance, but her portrayal of a high class call girl with conflicting priorities is still very good. Jennifer Beales in "Blue Dress" is a bit of a stiff in the sexual tension department. She's certainly attractive enough, but she isn't utilized well in this department. This makes it all the more confusing when she keeps getting talked about in such glowing terms by the characters. Much better at smoldering is Lisa Nicole Carson as Renee. She only has a brief amount of screentime near the beginning, but she makes an impression.
In terms of direct comparisons to "Chinatown", those are more oblique. Directors Curtis Hanson and Carl Franklin have different sensibilities than Roman Polanski. Whereas Polanski took the slow and seductive approach with his film, Hanson and Franklin are more action oriented and move their films at a faster pace. There are specific instances where Chinatown comes to mind when watching these films, though. One in particular is a scene in "Blue Dress", where Beales's character makes a shocking confession during a badgering interrogation by the male lead. It's virtualy identical to scene between Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown".
Both films have a great advantage in the choice of composers for their scores. According to the IMDb, Elmer Bernstein was originally pegged to do the score for "Confidential", but was replaced by "Chinatown" composer Jerry Goldsmith! Bernstien, himself a legend for his work on "The Great Escape" among others, had done "Devil in a Blue Dress" two years before, so perhaps he was satisfied having already put his mark on the genre. Both men, who coincidently died within with a month of each other last year, both acquit themselves superbly and are able to create the atmosphere necessary for the films.
I'd like to talk a bit about the weight of objects and the efforts of a film to create a real, physical world; one that you can almost touch. "L.A. Confidential" has that in spades. You can actually feel the weight of the badge and revolver as Bud White puts them on top of a desk. And when that gun and every other gun is fired, there is a visceral sensation that is missing from nearly every action film I've ever seen. Even in gun-happy films like "The Matrix", which I can watch and enjoy over and over, the guns seem more plastic than heavy metal compared to this film.
And this physicality is not confined to weaponry, either. In the scene where Exley interrogates some suspects, Bud White finds himself leaning forward while gripping the back of a chair. His anger at the suspect's words builds (I'm telling you, Russell was robbed of an Oscar) until he breaks the back of the chair and charges at one of the suspects. The tension built in this scene is palpable due to all the usual filmmaking suspects: cinematography, film editing, sound editing and acting. There are moments where the film feels almost 3D in it's presentation, and it deserves a valued place in film history for that alone.
The ending of both are in a way similar: a shootout in and around an isolated building. "Confidential" goes for a flashy action sequence that is extremely exciting. The gun play is less in "Blue Dress" and the scene is more focused on character. Both work very well at what they are doing, however, and are satisfying in their own way. Both are also followed by a coda that shows the fates of our leads, "Confidential" is happy enough to show them driving into the sunset, whereas "Blue Dress" goes for a more lyrical ending with Washington doing a voiceover about his life an future. As much as I like "Confidential", I was much more satisfied with the ending of "Blue Dress", which seemed to have so much more meaning to it.
I first saw "L.A. Confidential" in the theater when it first came out eight years ago, and I first saw "Devil in a Blue Dress" just last month on a rented DVD. Both are superior examples of the genre and make for one hell of a double feature. Do yourself a favor and rent both of them soon so you can spend a suspenseful and thrilling evening in post-war Los Angeles.
"Devil in a Blue Dress" - Eight out of Ten
"L.A. Confidential" - Ten out of Ten