Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Directed by Carl Franklin
Screenplay by Carl Franklin, based on the book by Walter Mosley
Produced by Jesse Beaton, Jonathan Demme, Donna Gigliotti, Gary Goetzman, Thomas A. Imperato, Walter Mosley, Edward Saxon
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Editing by Carole Dravetz
Costumes by Sharen Davis
Twilight Time Blu-ray (1:42)
The story may be typical noir, but the look, feel, and performances in Devil in a Blue Dress make it anything but typical. The film is based on the first book in the Easy Rawlins mystery series by Walter Mosley and it’s a pity no other books were adapted.
The time and setting are clearly noir: Los Angeles in 1948. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington, above) is a World War II veteran who owns and cherishes his own home, a rare thing for an African American man in those times. When Easy is laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has no idea how he’s going to keep up his mortgage.
Easy’s friend Joppy (Mel Winkler) who runs a local bar tells Easy that a white man named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) might be looking for someone to help him with a little investigative project: locating a young white woman named Daphne (Jennifer Beals, above) who may be spending time in the black community. Easy and Albright meet and Easy takes the job, knowing there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Devil in a Blue Dress succeeds in many ways, the first of which is in making us believe that Easy Rawlins is a regular guy, an everyman noir type. He’s atypical in that he’s a black man who owns his own home, but as far as being a detective, Easy knows very little. We see this in a few tight situations, situations that Easy would’ve been able to anticipate if he’d had more experience. The problem with gaining experience is that you have to live long enough to get it.
The film takes several twists and turns, which any fan of noir will have already anticipated. The plot is fine, but the actors and the look of the film elevate it to a very high level, one that noir-heads will no doubt appreciate. All of the performances shine, especially Don Cheadle (above left) as Mouse Alexander, Easy’s friend from Houston. Although many critics pan Jennifer Beal’s performance, she does what she has to do and does it well. (You don’t exactly expect a femme fatale to display the range of a Judy Dench.)
Unfortunately Devil in a Blue Dress tanked at the box office. The film cost $27 million and only made a little over $16 million. Period films cost a lot of money, even back in 1995. That’s too bad, because I could see a whole series of Easy Rawlins films with Denzel. But by this time, Washington was already a superstar and would likely have chosen not to get locked into a series. Still, I wish we’d had one or two more Easy Rawlins cases. But I’m glad we have this one. If you’re a noir fan, you won’t want to miss it.