DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995)

  • Director: Carl Franklin
  • Writers: Carl Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley
  • Starring: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler, Albert Hall, and Lisa Nicole Carson
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

While watching Devil in a Blue Dress, I found myself thinking a lot about the movie Chinatown. Both movies are color neo-noirs set in old Los Angeles, both involve rivalries between various corrupt politicians, and both involve private detective heroes who have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into at the start. More than this, both (major spoilers here) finally make sense of their plots with late, dramatic revelations that two characters are siblings. In Chinatown, that reveal meant that the central mystery was actually about incestual abuse all along. Here, it means that the central mystery has been about one of the main characters being secretly biracial all along. 

And that is what makes Devil in a Blue Dress something new, to the extent that it is. We’ve seen many, many noirs on this approximate template, but none of them had Denzel Washington playing the detective. Original film noirs often operated in a world that entirely lacked Black people, this is one set closer to how the community in 1948 Los Angeles actually might have looked. Washington gets your usual hardboiled Raymond Chandler-style voiceover as detective Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins, but his version is aware that he’s even less safe than Humphrey Bogart usually is in his movies. “Here I was, driving a white woman through a white neighborhood. I wasn’t just a fool, I was stupid.” His Rawlins actually lives in a seemingly-respectable Black neighborhood, which looks like any other leafy suburban street, among Black people who seem middle-class by 1940s standards. He is most proud of owning his house, and there’s a very weird runner about a random guy who keeps trying to cut down his trees (this eventually becomes important when tree-cutter guy makes Rawlins aware another man is waiting in his house to jump him).

I would say that this change of setting and perspective is the biggest thing that this movie has going for it, and I would also say that it’s mostly enough. The directing by ex-TV actor Carl Franklin doesn’t push the noir angle further than it needs to. There are no hard shadows through window blinds, at least that I noticed. This is a fun and interesting noir story with lots of good acting performances, and that’s all we need.

Having lost his job at a factory, Rawlins is looking for work to pay his mortgage when he is visited by a hired gun (Tom Sizemore) to try and find the beautiful, missing girlfriend (Jennifer Beals) of a mayoral candidate, or at least that’s what the guy says he hiring him for. His stated rationale is that is the girl reportedly has a “predilection for dark meat,” and he will stand out going into primarily Black clubs, bars, etc. As it turns out, the case involves multiple murders and blackmail in multiple directions. Rawlins eventually has to bring in his loose cannon friend from Houston, Mouse, played by Don Cheadle, who steals every scene he’s in. At one point late in the movie, he defensively responds to Rawlins’ dismay regarding certain events with, “If you wanted him to stay alive, then why did you leave him with me?”

If the movie’s missing something, it’s a memorable counterweight to our heroes played by Washington and Cheadle. Most great film noirs have either a memorable villain (like The Maltese Falcon) or a very memorable femme fatale (like Double Indemnity) or both. Beals, the former star of Flashdance, is fine here as the “devil in a blue dress” of the title, but honestly doesn’t get so much to do. The movie’s Wikipedia page says that Franklin felt he had to cut a “steamy love scene” between Beals and Washington because it turned out to be extraneous to the story. Left in is a lengthy, very steamy love scene between Washington and Lisa Nicole Carson, so it wasn’t for ratings or censorship reasons. There’s no nudity, but suffice to say Denzel has lots of chemistry flying in all directions in this movie. As for villains, Tom Sizemore likewise has little to do other than act tough, and veteran actor Maury Chaykin is good in sort of the John Huston-in-Chinatown role but only really gets one scene. The movie works the way that it does by keeping us in Rawlins’ perspective from beginning to end. Thinking back, he’s in basically every scene of the movie.

In addition to Chinatown, Devil in a Blue Dress reminds me of two much more recent TV series, both of which I enjoyed in their own ways, the HBO Perry Mason remake and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Like them, it gets a long way on its setting in a specific period of Los Angeles history alone. It is in color but feels almost sepia-toned. And like them, it edges into parts of Golden Age of Hollywood LA that weren’t actually getting shown in the movies. But it also has a fun and well done film noir mystery plot, with lots of twists and turns. If you like those neo-noirs I mentioned, or just “classic” film noirs, you will probably enjoy Devil in a Blue Dress, both when its putting new twists on the genre and when its treading well-worn paths.

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