1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress is a curiously underappreciated film. It grossed a meager $16 million at the box office, which is one of those cinematic anomalies for which there is no explanation. It’s an excellent film, with performances ranging from solid to all-out fucking brilliant, and yet it was completely ignored. It had a decent, if small overall opening weekend, considering it was competing against the out-of-nowhere juggernaut that Se7en ended up being, and then it inexplicably stumbled and fell in the subsequent weeks.
The point is, Devil in a Blue Dress is one of those films that many people have heard of, seen the DVD cover for, perhaps, and even have a rough understanding of its story — black guy, ’40s, white woman, trouble, perhaps some blue clothing — but few have actually seen. Which is an absolute shame, because it’s a intelligent, insightful and riveting period piece that hits every goal it shoots for.
The story is perhaps as simple as the few words I threw together up there. Denzel Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an out-of- work WWII veteran in 1948 Los Angeles, who’s offered a job that looks like fast, easy money. Easy’s no dummy, yet despite his trepidation, takes the job from the garrulous, overbearing DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) of finding a missing white woman who has, as Albright so charmingly phrases it a taste for “jazz, pig’s feet and dark meat.” He contends that her estranged fiancee is seeking her, and pays Easy good money to simply locate her. Of course, nothing is ever quite so simple. Soon people start dying and Easy finds himself in a complex and dangerous warren of gangsters, politicians both clean and crooked, all tied into one Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the lovely, quiet woman who is surrounded by tragedy.
It’s not worth talking about the plot any further, because unlike so many films of its ilk, Devil in a Blue Dress is a true mystery. The story is languidly paced, a slowly building investigation where Easy is trying to find the girl, clear his name, and get the truth (and, to be honest, make a little money as well). It takes its time, and that’s one of its greatest strengths. Based on the stellar novel by Walter Mosley, it’s based on one in a series of entries about Easy Rawlins, and was likely intended to become an entry in a franchise, until its paltry box office showing killed the idea. Regardless, Mosely’s novel is well-represented, an adept adaptation that captures the mood and atmosphere near perfectly, an impressive feat given the author’s rich and evocative writing. It’s an intelligent, articulate picture that not only enables you to watch a mystery unfold, but also has a menacing undertone that gives the viewer a glimpse into what the darker, seedier side of life was. It’s a film about race, but not a FILM ABOUT RACE, if you get my meaning. Instead of making a grand sociological statement, it instead uses the racially divisive times as a subtle backdrop for the story and thus, the tale is woven into the historical fabric seamlessly.
Directed by Carl Franklin (who also wrote the screenplay), Devil in a Blue Dress is a painstaking study in time and place. Its nuanced attention to every detail — the clothes, shoes, drinks, cigarettes — the entire realization of the era is absolutely enthralling. Part of the advantage of the film’s easygoing pace is it affords the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous production design. Every last detail is captured, and combined with the snappy dialogue and excellent performances, it’s a whole film, a complete encapsulation of four days in 1940s Los Angeles.
The writing, direction, and production are all excellent, but what truly elevates the film are its performances, and the most notable is that of the lead, Denzel Washington. His portrayal of Easy Rawlins is a surprisingly deep one. Easy isn’t necessarily a suave, sophisticated and brilliant P.I. Instead, he’s simply a smart but unlucky guy who’s looking to make a few bucks. He reluctantly cuts a couple of corners, which forces him down the rabbit hole. However, he’s strong and tough enough to endure, and smart enough to find his way out. Jennifer Beals is solid as Daphne — she brings a luminous beauty to the role, though the role is underwritten a bit and not quite as intense as the character in the novel. Instead, she’s less an instigator and more a sultry, yet mostly innocent moll who knows how to work people to get what she wants, except that it quickly spirals out of her control. There are two other standout supporting roles — the first is Tom Sizemore’s Albright, a genial, friendly, and vicious hired hand who will use anyone and anything to complete his job. Sizemore’s performance is creepy as hell — every time DeWitt Albright smiles, you cringe a little, and eventually you come to realize that your visceral reaction is perfectly justified . He’s a cold-blooded borderline-psychotic who uses anything, be it fist, gun or guile, to get what he needs.
But the star supporting role is, of course, Don Cheadle as Mouse, Easy’s old friend and the backup he calls in when things start to go south. Mouse is probably the true sociopath — he’s a friend to Easy, but one that he calls in reluctantly. All grinning gold teeth and dapper suits, he’s an uncontrollable, single-minded force of nature. Mouse isn’t particularly clever — he never sees beyond his next act, and his next act is invariably a violent one. He’s best summed up in a line from his own dialogue — when Easy finds that Mouse has killed a man he was supposed to guard, Mouse responds plaintively, “Look, if you ain’t want him killed, why’d you leave him with me?” Mouse has a tendency, even with the best of intentions, to destroy everything in his path. He’s the best and worst type of friend to a man like Rawlins, and is portrayed with a devilish wink and unexpected complexity by Cheadle — a precursor of sorts to Snoopy Miller from Out of Sight.
Devil in a Blue Dress is a brilliant example of well-executed noir mystery. A throwback to the mysteries of Hawks and Huston, it’s also a film that creates its own niche, and not just because of the race of its protagonists. It has a relatively simple plot, avoiding the silly contrivances and twists of many mysteries. While there is a twist, it’s an interesting one that actually, upon contemplation, makes perfect sense and actually ties the film together, instead of creating more questions. It’s a beautiful period piece that did an amazing job of capturing a point in history, and is coupled with sharp writing, deft direction, and outstanding acting. Devil in a Blue Dress is much like its main character — savvy, always thinking, and most of all — cool.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.