Neo-Noir DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS Slinks It's Way to Criterion
Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and Jennifer Beals Star in Black Neo-Noir
Los Angeles, 1948. The war is over and we won. That, though, is past. Victory euphoria? Fading, fading quickly. For some, particularly the alienated veterans of classic Film Noir, they’ve survived the fire only to have landed in an altogether different frying pan. What’s the opposite of euphoria…? Never mind… that will come in time.
And make no mistake, it will come. It will come because this is an origin story. Denzel Washington stars as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. He’s just so perfect in this role, viewers should openly lament that this was his only outing in what was clearly intended to be a film series. Easy’s a great character with a pretty great name. He’s still got a few potentially good years in front of him. He’s served his country in World War II, and has even managed to carve out his own little literal corner of suburbia. Not bad for a single Black veteran. Work, though, is drying up… for people like him.
Racially tinged political scandal is rocking the town as one big important candidate has suddenly dropped out, clearing the path to office for his opponent. Or so the headline says. Big whoop; how can any of that matter to the average grunt who’s just lookin’ to get by? Maybe don’t ask that; the answer’s not so… easy. Next thing our tank-topped forgotten man knows, he’s facing down a lucrative offer to get himself caught up in some real trouble. The “trouble” part is unspoken, but Easy knows it’s likely. So does anyone watching the movie. That’s not wrong. But the money’s green (courtesy of a very intimidating Tom Sizemore), and seemingly… easy. All he’s gotta do is locate that disgraced politician’s missing fiancé, a gal who goes by the name Daphne Monet. How hard can that be? A quick hundred bucks. The damn mortgage is due.
Nearly thirty years out from its critically successful but financially disappointing debut, Devil in a Blue Dress stands as one of filmmaker Carl Franklin’s finer achievements. Effectively capturing a slow, sweaty and seductive “Noir” past without stooping into visual caricature, the movie darn near defies its status of “Neo-Noir”, temptingly tipping into simple “Film Noir”. Whatever one calls it, the atmosphere and vibe are its strongest qualities. Franklin takes us fully inside of a city scene where the wrong people won’t stop talking and the right people will barely talk at all. Cars are nice and shiny but also cumbersome chrome buckets from the previous decade. “Keep fixin’ ‘em, and they’ll keep us going”. That’s one thing they say.
In a movie so full of details fine and ominous, it’s a little weird that the title is what it is. “Devil in a Blue Dress” is, of course, the name of author Walter Mosley’s seminal 1990 mystery thriller, notable for, among other things, it’s use of African American English in the Black characters’ dialogue. It was the debut of Easy Rawlins, who’d go on to dick his way through several more hard-boiled crime yarns. But as for this title, one can’t help but think of the hit song “Devil with a Blue Dress On”, popularized in 1966 by Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. For the song to somehow play into the story would be a multi-pronged anachronism, it’s true. And, it doesn’t. But how easy is it to hear the title and not think of the tune? At least for a moment? Good Golly, Miss Molly. It can’t be done. But when Easy does find Daphne Monet, she is indeed in the titular blue dress. (One of several, actually). Is she a Devil? The Devil? Not really. One thing’s for sure: she’s Jennifer Beals.
As the plot thickens, so does the racist undercurrent of what’s going down. It all becomes far more than a “tinge” soon enough, as Easy quickly finds himself in over his head and wishing he’d just listened to The Voice of warning screaming in his head earlier. He gets repeatedly threatened, cut, shot at, punched, and knocked around throughout this whole caper. Inevitably, he finds himself in a small dark room downtown for questioning, the focus of a round of bad cop and badder cop. He didn’t ask for any of this, but at least the payoffs grow as he sinks down deeper, and deeper. He gets a shady, trigger-happy associate called Mousy (Don Cheadle) to back him up. At this point, the plot gets as knotty as it gets jarringly violent. Maybe knottier.
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’s what got sent. In any case, it’s director approved, with the feature sourced from a new 4K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. This is one immersive movie rendered all the more immersive thanks to all that. It’s like you can feel the heat in the night air, almost touch the towering palm trees, or see your own reflection in the body of any given automobile.
Disc extras are solid. Here’s what’s what:
⁃ They’ve pulled Franklin’s old, 1998 DVD commentary out of mothballs. Only a few years removed from the making of the film back then, the director speaks with full positivity about it. There are gaps and short-ish silences from him, but on the whole, Franklin’s public demeanor concerning Devil in a Blue Dress hasn’t shifted much in the years since.
⁃ Which brings us to a newly created extra, a long-form in-person chat between Franklin and actor Don Cheadle. Cheadle kinda steals this show, revealing himself to be quite the intuitive interviewer.
⁃ But then, thanks to an unearthed fourteen-minute video of his screen test for his role of Mousy, we’re reminded of what a terrific actor Mr. Cheadle is, as well. If you like watching old screen tests, this will be your best jam.
⁃ You know your Noir film is bona fide when TCM’s Eddie Muller signs off on it. In 2018, he hosted Carl Franklin for live Q&A before and after a special screening of Devil at Noir City Film Festival in Chicago. The video of both sessions is presented here.
⁃ There’s a tremendous new conversation between Walter Mosley and novelist Attica Locke on his approach and formative approach to Black crime fiction. Sure it’s a lot of rather “bookish” talk, but it’s at the root of the film in question.
⁃ The film’s original theatrical trailer
⁃ English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
⁃ An essay by critic Julian Kimble within the included fold-out insert. This insert is rather beautiful in and of itself, matching the striking new cover art on the outer packaging. Nice, very high-quality paper stock, which is pleasing to the touch. Unfortunately, the pink lettering of the essay on the paper’s deep black is kind of difficult to read.
Cynicism. That’s the word we were looking for at the beginning. Perhaps, strictly speaking, it’s not really the dictionary opposite of euphoria- but it can’t be denied that cynicism definitely does a number on it. All of that pours forth from Washington’s restrained embodiment of Mosley’s character in Franklin’s movie. The star’s star would only grow brighter as the decades roll by- and many of his roles would grow far more violent than this one is. In his movies that invoke the angelic, he tends to be an Angel. In his movies that invoke the Devil… he’s still an Angel. Most of the time. Denzel Washington is one of our great acting talents working today, and he is a tightly wound blessing to this project.
Criterion, in its ongoing effort to spotlight more minority voices, may take a few knocks for opting to with this particular piece of mid-level American studio multiplex fodder. Yes, it is a mainstream Entertainment with a capital “E”. And no, it’s never really been hailed as an important contemporary work. (At least, not before Eddie Muller got to it). But it’s a high-end example of what it does well. And yeah, the story is unafraid to get at some real things; some things that our supposedly enlightened society should’ve learned and taken to heart way back when. Carl Franklin earns his spine number for this one. Hopefully, his One False Move isn’t far behind.
Whether you’re a fan of the leading man, of Film Noir, of African American genre stories, of stories that get their hooks into bigger things, you’ll want to put Criterion’s Devil in a Blue Dress on.