Los Angeles, 1948. The war is over and we won. However, that is in the past. victory euphoria? Fade, fade quickly. Some, particularly the estranged veterans of classic film noir, survived the fire only to end up in a very different frying pan. What is the opposite of euphoria…? Never mind… that will come with time.
And make no mistake, it will Come. It will come because this is an origin story. Denzel Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. He’s just so perfect in the role that viewers should lament that this was his only appearance in a film series that was clearly meant to be a film series. Easy is a great character with a pretty great name. He still has a few potentially good years ahead of him. He served his country in World War II and even managed to literally carve out his own little suburban corner. Not bad for a lone black veteran. However, work is drying up…for people like him.
A racially tinged political scandal shakes the city when a major candidate is suddenly eliminated, leaving his opponent free to run for office. At least that’s what the headline says. great cheering; How can that mean anything to the average grunt just trying to get by? Maybe don’t ask that; the answer is not so… simple. The next thing our tank top oblivious knows, he’s facing a lucrative offer to get himself in some real trouble. The “problem” part is unspoken, but Easy knows it’s likely. So does everyone who watches the film. That’s not wrong. But the money is green (courtesy of a very intimidating Tom Sizemore) and seemingly… easy. All he has to do is track down this disgraced politician’s missing fiancé, a girl named Daphne Monet. How hard can that be? Fast hundred dollars. The damn mortgage is due.
Almost thirty years after its critically successful but financially disappointing debut, devil in a blue dress is considered one of the finest achievements of filmmaker Carl Franklin. Effectively capturing a slow, sweaty, and seductive “noir” past without stooping into visual caricatures, the film all but defies its “neo-noir” status and tantalizingly tilts into plain “film noir.” Whatever you call it, atmosphere and vibe are its strongest qualities. Franklin takes us completely into a city scene where the wrong people won’t stop talking and the right people barely talk. Cars are beautiful and shiny but also unwieldy buckets of chrome from the past decade. “Keep fixing them and they’ll keep us going.” That’s one thing they say.
In a film so full of subtle and ominous detail, it’s a little odd that the title is what it is. “devil in a blue dress‘ is, of course, the name of author Walter Mosley’s groundbreaking 1990 mystery thriller, which is notable for, among other things, the use of African-American English in the dialogue of the black characters. It was the debut of Easy Rawlins, which meandered through several more hard-nosed crime stories. But when you hear this title, you can’t help but think of the hit song “Devil with a Blue Dress On,” popularized by Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels in 1966. For the song to intervene in the story in any way would be a complex anachronism, that’s true. And it doesn’t. But how easy is it to hear the track and not think of the tune? At least for a moment? Good Golly, Miss Molly. It’s not working. But when Easy finds Daphne Monet, she is actually wearing the eponymous blue dress. (Actually one of several). is she a devil That Devil? Not really. One thing is certain: she is Jennifer Beals.
As the plot thickens, so does the racist undercurrent of what’s going on. It all soon becomes far more than a ‘sound’ as Easy quickly finds himself overhead, wishing he’d just listened sooner to the voice of warning screaming inside his head. Throughout this caper he is repeatedly threatened, cut, shot at, punched and pushed around. Inevitably, he finds himself being interrogated in a small dark room downtown, at the center of a round of bad cops and badder cops. He didn’t ask for any of it, but at least the payouts grow as he goes lower and lower. He gets a seedy, trigger-happy partner named Mousy (Don Cheadle) to back him up. At this point the plot gets as tricky as it gets harrowingly violent. Maybe more knotty.
Now you can watch devil in a blue dress on Criterion Blu-ray and 4K disc formats. This review can only vouch for the Blu-ray as that was broadcast. In any case, it’s director-approved, with the feature coming from a new 4K digital restoration with 5.1 surround DTS HD master audio soundtrack. This is a haunting movie made even more haunting thanks to all of this. It’s as if you could feel the heat in the night air, almost touch the towering palm trees, or see your own reflection in the body of a certain car.
Disc extras are solid. Here’s what:
⁃ They mothballed Franklin’s old 1998 DVD commentary. Just a few years from the time the film was made, the director speaks positively about it. There are gaps and brief silences from him, but overall, Franklin’s public appearances are worrying devil in a blue dress not much has changed in the years since.
⁃ Which brings us to a newly created extra, a lengthy personal conversation between Franklin and actor Don Cheadle. Cheadle kind of steals this show and turns out to be a pretty intuitive interviewer.
⁃ But thanks to an unearthed 14-minute video of his screen test for his role as Mousy, we’re also reminded what a great actor Mr. Cheadle is. If you like looking at old screen tests, this will be your best jam.
⁃ You’ll know your noir film is real when Eddie Muller of TCM approves it. In 2018 he hosted Carl Franklin for live Q&A before and after a special screening of Devil at the Noir City Film Festival in Chicago. The video of both sessions is presented here.
⁃ There’s a great new conversation between Walter Mosley and novelist Attica Locke about his approach and his formative approach to black crime fiction. Sure, it’s a lot of pretty “literal” talk, but it’s at the root of the film in question.
⁃ The original theatrical trailer of the film
⁃ English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
⁃ An essay by the critic Julian Kimble in the accompanying leaflet. This insert is quite beautiful in and of itself, matching the eye-catching new cover art on the outer packaging. Beautiful, very high quality paper material that is pleasant to the touch. Unfortunately, the pink writing on the essay is a little hard to read on the jet black paper.
cynicism. That’s the word we were looking for in the beginning. Maybe it’s not exactly the lexicon opposite of euphoria, strictly speaking – but there’s no denying that cynicism definitely adds a number to it. All of this emerges from Washington’s understated portrayal of Mosley’s character in Franklin’s film. The star’s star would only get brighter as the decades went by — and many of his roles would become far more violent than this one. In his films that evoke the angelic, he tends to be an angel. In his films summoning the devil he is still an angel. Usually. Denzel Washington is one of our great acting talents working today and he is a boon to this project.
Criterion, in its constant quest to bring more minority voices into the limelight, might take a few hits to settle on this particular piece of mid-range American studio-multiplex fodder. Yes, it’s mainstream entertainment with a capital “E”. And no, it was never really hailed as an important contemporary work. (At least not before Eddie Muller came along). But it’s a high-end example of what it does well. And yes, the story isn’t afraid to get down to real things; Things that our supposedly enlightened society should have learned and taken to heart a long time ago. Carl Franklin earned his shirt number for it. Hopefully his A wrong move is not far behind.
Whether you’re a fan of the lead man, film noir, African American genre stories, or stories that hook into bigger things, you’ll want to use Criterion’s devil in a blue dress on.