Devil in a Blue Dress

In many ways, Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress feels like a 1940s noir flick. It has the same sultry mood, the same quippy banter, the same knotty plotting and the same world-weary cynicism as the better noir flicks of the era. The key differences mostly boil down to color: the color of the movie itself (which isn't shot in black-and-white) and the color of the lead actor's skin. Actors who looked like Denzel Washington weren't allowed to play hard-boiled detectives back in the heyday of noir, so it's understandable that Devil in a Blue Dress feels less like a '90s thriller than like an old-fashioned throwback making up for lost time.

Washington plays Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, who introduces himself thusly:

“It was summer 1948, and I needed money. After going door-to-door all day long, I was back again at Joppy's bar trying to figure out where I was gonna go looking for work the next day. The newspapers was goin' on and on about the city elections – like they was really gonna change somebody's life. But my life had already changed when I lost my job three weeks before.”

It's easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum delivering those lines, and they roll off Washington's tongue with such world-weary ease that you immediately accept him as an old-school noir hero. Easy isn't a licensed private investigator, but when he gets offered a few hundred bucks to find a missing person, he jumps at the opportunity. It seems a white woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals, Flashdance) has disappeared, and is believed to be hiding out somewhere in the African-American community. She's the girlfriend of a wealthy man named Todd Carter (Terry Kinney, Fly Away Home), who was recently a leading candidate in the mayoral race but dropped out after Daphne's disappearance. Todd hired a thug named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore, Natural Born Killers) to find Daphne, but DeWitt doesn't have any connections in the African-American community. So, DeWitt hires Easy to find Daphne.

The set-up seems simple enough, but if you've watched more than a handful of noir dramas, you'll know that these things are never as simple as they seem. There are double-crosses and triple-crosses and secret motivations and new players and frame-ups, and Easy works valiantly to ensure that he's always a step or two ahead of everybody else. As he puts it: “A man once told me that you step out your door in the morning, you're already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?”

The plot is suitably tangled, but generally a little less compelling than the tales spun by the finest noir flicks. Still, the film's “mournful sax solo” atmosphere is enough to make it an absorbing watch, particularly if you're as fond of this sort of thing as I am. One of Franklin's biggest strengths is his ability to create a very particular sense of place, whether it's the swampy sleaze of Out of Time (another underrated Washington vehicle) or the small-town tics of One False Move. Here, he gives us an old-school L.A. that feels like the low-income version of the glamorous city Curtis Hanson depicted in L.A. Confidential. It's a big city with a lot of bright lights, but Franklin's tale takes us to the dive bars, the flophouses and the back alleys.

Washington's performance is another exceptional piece of work from one of America's most consistent actors. He often gets charged with “playing Denzel,” but he has greater range than he gets credit for. He's “playing Denzel” in this and he was “playing Denzel” in Tony Scott's Crimson Tide (released the same year), but there's a world of difference between the tired amateur detective he essays in this and the earnest young naval officer he played in Scott's film. There's a good deal of Philip Marlowe in the character – he's not a doomed sap, but a smart guy who consistently manages to get into situations that are much trickier than he possibly could have anticipated.

The film's other exceptional performance comes from Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) as Mouse Alexander, a trigger-happy hothead who bursts into the movie gun-first around the halfway point. Mouse is a valuable ally, but a dangerous one: he's quick to pull a gun on anyone who bothers him, and everybody bothers him. There's an interesting conflict between Easy's cool-headed intelligence and Mouse's impulsive violence, and the film gains a new energy every time Cheadle appears.

Devil in a Blue Dress is based on a novel by Walter Mosely, who has written a whole series of Chandler-inspired Easy Rawlins mysteries. In a just world, we'd be on our fifth or sixth Rawlins movie by now, with Washington and Cheadle still playing the same roles (the series begins in the '40s and continues through the '60s). Unfortunately, Devil in a Blue Dress tanked at the box office, and that was that. It's not one of the great neo-noir efforts of the '90s (certainly not on the level of the best John Dahl films like Red Rock West or The Last Seduction), but it's a fine, old-fashioned crime flick anchored by a pair of exceptional performances. Here's hoping somebody else gives this character another shot someday.

Devil in a Blue Dress

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 1995