Devil in a Blue Dress April 12, 2021
t’s the summer of 1948 and Easy Rawlins doesn’t know what he’s going to do. It’s been almost a month since he was laid off from his aircraft-factory job, and new job listings playing into his skillset — he has most often worked as a machinist — are basically nonexistent. Asking for work on a door-to-door basis hasn’t worked out, either. One afternoon, while Easy skims the newspaper's Classifieds in his friend Joppy’s (Mel Winkler) bar, in
walks a savior with a neat mustache and a cream suit. His name is DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), and he has a one-time gig available for the taking that could net Easy some $100. Easy, played by the always-charming Denzel Washington, is rightfully suspicious of Albright. Though vouched for by Joppy, this man won't specify which business he's involved with aside from that he "does favors for friends." But though his very presence sounds off Easy’s inner alarm bells, Easy also determines, to his chagrin, that he isn’t in a position to listen to them. Easy is two months behind on his mortgage, and his house — the first thing he bought upon returning from war — is everything he has. He isn’t about to give it up.
When Albright decides to reveal it, the job doesn’t seem so bad on the face of it. Easy is tasked with finding Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the fiancée of mayoral candidate Todd Carter (Terry Kinney). Carter recently dropped out of the race, and rumor has it that Daphne is to blame. Easy isn’t to look for the “why” underlying her vanishing, however — just the where. Albright specifically wants Easy for the undertaking because Daphne has been spotted patronizing various Central Avenue juke joints. The search isn’t too hard. All it takes for Easy to pin down Daphne’s general whereabouts is a few drinks bought for a couple of old friends. But this kindles a convoluted aftermath. When one of those friends is found viciously beaten to death the next morning, Easy’s suspicions that Albright may be bad news are amplified. Then they’re confirmed when, in a subsequent meeting with him, Easy is acquainted with his quasi-boss’ way with a gun.
Easy is no detective, but he smoothly slips into the guise of one once it seems this Daphne business has layers he’ll have to peel back himself. As he descends lower into the depths of L.A.’s seedy underbelly — where everybody seems to be blackmailing each other, where almost everyone’s veneer of normalcy hides icky truths and meticulously hidden pasts — Easy ably sifts through its dangers and synthesizes the spurious stories shady subjects share. “Everybody was peeing on my head and telling me it was raining,” Easy observes as he investigates; he has a knack for making throughlines from deceitful cobwebs. He isn’t an embodiment of crystalline moral clarity, though: he’s imbued with appropriate ethical ambivalence and will unhesitantly act on the occasional regretful transgression.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) was writer-director Carl Franklin’s follow-up to the much-lauded crime thriller One False Move (1992), and it again establishes him as a filmmaker as adept at offering compelling stories as he is at vividly creating the milieus in which they take place. Devil in a Blue Dress astutely restates the visual language of classic film noir. Visually there is a level of dark romanticism lurking in the constant duplicity Easy must wade through, abetted by these evocatively smoke-filled rooms, smart period costuming, expressive material recreations of 1940s Los Angeles. Setting the movie apart from other detective lore of the period is how a typical narrative featuring corrupt politicians, dangerous women, incompetent police, and other shadowy figures is reframed in this white-dominant genre when a Black hero is the one macheting through the treachery. At one point in the film, when invited to meet a lead in the segregated Ambassador Hotel, Easy must be snuck up through a side entrance by a bellboy. It’s a requisite in a detective movie that the private dick at its center be treated with some hostility by the police. (They feel undermined by him.) But what happens when that hostility steeps in bigotry? A white detective can effortlessly blend in; in a segregated cityscape, and with this particular case, a Black sleuth can’t so easily.
Some extraneous narrative threads in Devil in a Blue Dress go underdeveloped. Partway through the movie a trigger-happy friend of Easy’s (Don Cheadle) appears to assist with this amateur investigation. But he’s so insubstantially
rendered that he becomes more a nuisance than an unexpendable part of the storyline — the movie doesn’t offer very many reasons why he needs to be here. And the decision to snip away the romantic connection between Daphne and Easy as included in the book the movie is based on takes away a moral complication that could have given the film an additional tension from which it could have benefitted.
Still, this largely unexplored lens through which to see film noir is one I wish Franklin and Washington were able to further develop. The movie’s ending lays a foundation for sequels. With Devil in a Blue Dress being an adaptation of author Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins book (with the most recent addition to the series released this February), there would have been plenty of material to work with. Rawlins is ripe to be given as much cinematic life as Raymond Chandler’s beloved P.I. Philip Marlowe. There have been 10 Marlowe movies; Devil in a Blue Dress, in contrast, remains the only Easy Rawlins film adaptation to date. It’s a shame: this well-crafted mystery thriller leaves you eager for more. B+