Devil in a Blue Dress is a film with the same blood as a Raymond Chandler novel pulsing through its veins. It's hard-boiled; appropriately serpentine; lightly quixotic in its pulp; and characterized by an aura that makes the misery, violence, and doomed romances of film noir curiously erotic. Like an aging rock icon sipping black coffee with their twentieth cigarette of the day in hand, an iconically cool look regards the frame, anguish certainly there but difficult to see underneath the smoky semblance.
So we could say that Devil in a Blue Dress suffers from the fact that much of it is familiar, its edgy dialogue, sweltering ambience, and stylistically sensational setting updated but certainly too focused on paying homage to the days of Bogie and Bacall to really stand on its own two legs. It has too many debts to pay, afraid to go out on a limb and subvert everything we’ve come to know. The only things permeated over the years that are missing here are Hays Code diminished language, black-and-white photography, subtle sensuality, and a primarily white cast. Everything else is film noir 101.
But Devil in a Blue Dress’s unfortunate dependence on its sheen does little to diminish the frank commentary on the part of writer/director Carl Franklin, whose willful magnification of race relations in 1948-era Los Angeles gives the film depth that only makes it an homage in terms of style, its substance mostly flirting with Dashiell Hammett radness but oftentimes turning to deeper cultural thinking that makes it feel as authentic as it frequently doesn’t.
It stars Denzel Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an everyman whose livelihood is suddenly crushed after abruptly getting laid off from his job at Champion Aircraft. A WWII-veteran, he is not one to crumble under the weight of unemployment, willing to do anything to at least pay off the upcoming month’s mortgage. So he considers himself to be a fortunate victim of the hands of fate after he is asked by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a mysterious stranger, to play private eye and find Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a missing white woman said to be hiding in the outskirts of the black neighborhoods in the area. Her disappearance holds great importance, as she is the girlfriend of Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), a mayoral candidate whose recent dropping out of the race stumped and still stumps the residents of Los Angeles.
As in all film noir (this one especially is reminiscent of Farewell, My Lovely), everything is not what it seems, and Miss Monet is part of a much more arduous plot than what is initially revealed. A standup citizen with good morals, Easy is not an experienced detective but a newly minted one, making the seedy characters, the dangerous situations that come with the territory, as shocking to him as they are to us.
Besides its believable but not overtly dominant reminders of segregation during the time, Devil in a Blue Dress is conclusively more of the same. Yet devouring one’s popcorn is never a belittled factor. Appearances by slinky femmes fatales, thugs, and shady characters are never something that grows tiring, and that’s why Devil in a Blue Dress is a pastime that works. It reinvestigates already-established style with eminent passion while also producing social waves not seen by most film noir of the time period, and it’s invigorating.
Devil in a Blue Dress is a mixed bag, though an interesting one, and Washington, along with an underrated Beals, take done-to-death character archetypes and breathe life into their well-dressed carcasses. I just wish it weren’t so worried about the ultimate factor of tribute — it wants to break borders but is often held back by a recognizable approach. B