“It was summer, 1948, and I needed money.”
Competent, and at times compelling, Carl Franklin’s pedestrian neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress boasts a syzygy of talent that keeps it going.
The first of these components is Walter Mosley’s original novel which transplants traditional noir archetypes from a strictly urban environment to the African American middle-class. In the place of the clean-cut, trench-coated heroes of Chandler and Hammett, Mosley gives us Easy Rawlins: a private dick by necessity, not choice. Content to sit on his front porch in a wife-beater, Easy dreams of simple domesticity; of lounging in the fulfillment of his American dream—a Negro who owns his own house, his own car, his own backyard. His world is a black one: the bars he frequents are black; the juke joints he investigates are black; the Los Angeles suburban community where he tends his garden is black. Yet he finds himself thrust into the underbelly of white crime when a strange assignment falls into his lap: find Daphne Monet, a missing white woman with black “predilections” and suspicious ties to a prominent politician.
Far from being a mere curiosity or gimmick, this “negritude”—as Julie Kirgo describes it in the liner notes for the recent Twilight Times Blu-Ray release—helps inform the film’s nervous, post-war anxiety. Here is something most neo-noir miss: the classic noir weren’t just super-stylized thrillers or sex dramas (though many were), they were psychological portraits of a nation wounded by war and horrified by the dawning Atomic Age. The ubiquitous racism taints everything in Easy’s path: cops arrest and beat him with impunity; white teens assault him when he casually chats with a white woman; and everywhere the glances from white people confused as to why a Negro would be walking around the white part of town. While never achieving pressure cooker intensity, the atmosphere of racial hatred provides plenty of psychological anguish for both the characters and the audience.
The second best part of the film is Denzel Washington’s performance as Easy. Alternatively insouciant and furious, Washington manages to sell him as a character for whom hustling and private investigation comes naturally. But he truly shines in the aforementioned moments of racial violence. Watch how he lowers his eyes, straightens his back, and hunches his shoulders to become at once subservient and invisible to potential white attackers. Here is the nuance that separates Washington from so many inferior performers: with just a few gestures he evokes an entire history of survival in an era of destructive discrimination.
But the third and greatest revelation is Don Cheadle’s performance as Mouse Alexander, Easy’s psychopathic childhood friend who comes to California from Texas to help him in his investigation. After years of watching Cheadle play relatively straight-laced straight-men, it’s hypnotic to see him play such a brilliantly realized monster. He’s practically a robot, mechanically and impassively shooting anybody who crosses him. Indeed, he has the best line in the film: “Look, Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”
Besides these three elements, Devil in a Blue Dress proves derivative of other, more original films. There’s more than a little of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) at play here as well as a third-act twist so reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) that slaps you in the face harder than Jack Nicholson.
Devil in a Blue Dress is currently available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The release features an isolated score track, audio commentary with writer-director Carl Franklin, a screen test for Don Cheadle in what would become a career-making role, and the original 1995 theatrical trailer.