Devil in a Blue Dress ( 1995, dir. Carl Franklin)
“In a very good mystery, the detective comes into question and the investigator is forced to face his, or her, own prejudices, expectations and limitations. In a great mystery, we find that the crime being investigated reveals a deeper rot.” – Walter Mosley
“The most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic” – Roger Ebert describing film noir
East Los Angeles in the early 1950s. The sidewalks are crowded with women in sundresses and men in tailored suits. Chryslers roll down the street, their headlights bulging. Our hero ducks into a drugstore. He asks about a party going down in the backroom. He’s escorted up a narrow staircase, a single white bulb the only source of light. He chats with his burly escort. They go back a long way. Vague allusions are made to some trouble down in New Orleans, a murder that our hero may or may not have ordered. They finally reach the door. It opens onto a party in full swing: wah-wah trumpet, clinking glasses, people piled up at the bar. Our hero surveys the room. He needs answers.
Devil in a Blue Dress is the story of Easy Rawlins who, after being laid off from his mechanics job, is desperate for work. At the behest of Odell (his friend and local bartender) he takes a gig “finding information”. And so begins Easy’s odyssey from back alleys to mansions. In typical private eye fashion Easy starts with the relatively simple goal of locating a politician’s wife after she’s gone missing. Soon enough though, Easy gets swept up in a much larger conspiracy involving murder, doubles crosses, fake identities, the whole she-bang.
You’ve seen this set up before. Everything in the film, from the fedoras to the suspenders to the final cabin shootout, are tropes of a very specific kind of detective story…with one exception, almost all the characters are black.
At first Easy’s race isn’t particularly striking, but as the movie opens and evolves, you realize how rare it is to see a black detective, in a post-WW2 setting, moving through spaces with mostly black patrons. The effect of Easy’s race sneaks up on you. The first two-thirds of the film aren’t explicitly about a black/white divide, yet it hangs over every interaction. So like watching a toddler handle a Faberge egg , you’re just waiting for the things to get ugly. When Easy gets called into the police station for questioning, it’s tense of course. Tense because we know that Easy is involved in the case. But doubly tense because the officers have no problem beating up a black guy in the interrogation room.
Not to say the film makes a point not to sanctify Easy’s character either. The use of a black protagonist is especially refreshing since it doesn’t treat him as some sort of uncoruptable, baby-kissing saint. Easy still loses his temper, punches people out, and sleeps with his best friend’s wife while the friend is passed out nearby. The complexity of Easy is handled deftly by Denzel Washington. Devil in a Blue Dress is Denzel at the height of his powers. He was coming off a string of huge roles, Glory, Philadelphia, and Malcolm X and he has a rare ability to exude equal parts confidence and vulnerability in the same breath.
Which makes it all the more face-palming that Denzel has resigned himself to paycheck-cruise control. He may do the occasional Flight and be the only guy willing to show up for a Letterman taping in the middle of raging hurricane, but now for the most part he splits his time between saving white female tweens (Man on Fire, The Equalizer) or showing the ropes to Hollywood’s next chiseled rookie (Unstoppable, Training Day, Safe House). Although I guess those films are still better than his debut in The Mighty Quinn, which I can only assume was pitched as The Jamican Bobsled team with machine guns (example dialog includes: “You got a license for that!?” as Denzel’s eyes bug out and he looks down at her booty). Anyway…
Devil In A Blue Dress is well directed by Carl Franklin. Franklin has had a fascinating career, starting as an actor (a recurring role on The A-Team), then as protegee to Roger Corman, and finally bursting onto the directing scene with his 1992 crime film One False Move. That film opened to rave reviews, and was eventually named as Gene Siskel’s favorite film of 1992. Now, I haven’t actually seen One False Move, but based on the Billy Bob’s Ponytail and the cops’ jawlines in the trailer, it might be my next assignment.
Devil in a Blue Dress was Franklin’s follow up to One False Move. It should’ve catapulted him from the second rung (where all those indie directors with their small budgets and great reviews hang out) into the blockbuster castle (with its extra wide trailers and fancy craft services) because Devil in a Blue Dress is a great movie. Excellent performances, atmospheric photography, and a taught screenplay. Hell, the scene where Easy smashes Odell’s marble bar when Odell won’t give up the truth is enough to justify a viewing. But for whatever reason the film under-performed. Maybe people were still recovering from Woodstock 94? I don’t know. I was eight years old in 1995 and I can vividly remember all my friends going to see the The Power Rangers Movie, while my brother and I had to accompany my Mom to Pocahontas, neither of which was Devil In A Blue Dress.
Regardless, eight years old or not, nobody went to see it and Carl Franklin directed only a handful more films. Since 2003 it seems he’s been relegated to longform television, directing numerous episodes of Homeland, The Affair, and House of Cards. It’s hard to say whether Franklin is stuck in TV purgatory because he never had that one massive hit, or because that’s just the way the industry is now. All those mid-budget, adult dramas have fallen by the wayside. Studios are either going BIG on tentpoles, micro on indie pickups, or mid-range for two months of the year near Oscar season. Although I am happy to see thought that Franklin is still working. He’s a black director in a town where that’s a rarity.
And because Franklin understands that any great Film Noir lives or dies with its side roles, Devil in a Blue Dress also overflows with incredible supporting performances. Tom Sizemore as a completely unhinged enforcer. Jennifer Beals making your heart hurt with her coy little asides. And an electrified bit part from Don Cheadle. Cheadle shows up as Easy’s unscrupulous friend from down south, blasting dudes, swigging booze, and just generally upping the mayhem level. That got me thinking, I love that we have the term “character actor” to refer to any actor that isn’t conventionally attractive. Does the “character” designation apply to other fields? If you’re a frumpy looking scientist are you a “character scientist”? If you’re uglier than your sibling are you the “character child”? When there’s a group hanging out, am I the “character friend”?!?
At any rate, Devil In A Blue Dress is more than worth your time. Shootouts in the woods, cars following other cars at dusk, Denzel smoking a cigarette with his collar popped! What’s not to love? AND unlike so many of the random films I’ve watched for this blog, Devil is actually on Netflix. Glory Glory! You don’t even need to leave you house! You can sit down on the couch in your underwear, slather up a big ol’ tub of popcorn, pour an unhealthy amount of vodka into your rootbeer float, and be gradually lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of laughter.
– A great way to tell apart the good guys from the bad guys in any film noir is the level of sweat on their forehead. If the character is on the right side of justice their bodies are typically better at regulating temperature. But if they’re an villain their brow is often times piano-mover sweaty. Hence why you never see private eyes interrogating suspects at the gym.
– The film goes all out on pencil mustaches. Almost every character in the film has one. Black, White, Hispanic, rich and poor, the one thing uniting these disparate groups of men is the pencil stash. And they all seem to have the little clean patch right below the nose. Instead of a single line, we get two little hair worms almost touching… so close….like the fingers of Adam and God