Weekend Film Recommendation: Devil in a Blue Dress

For years, I believed that no one would ever write a Los Angeles detective novel as well as did Raymond Chandler. But then a friend gave me the book Black Betty, which changed my mind. Walter Mosley’s detective, Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins roams in an atmospheric, corrupt and dangerous LA just as did Phillip Marlowe, but Easy practices his trade as a Black Man in the 1940s. In Mosley’s skilled hands, that difference opens up a world of plot, character, emotion and social comment that countless Caucasian detective novel authors before him never explored. This week’s film recommendation is a first-rate adaptation of Mosley’s work: Devil in a Blue Dress.

As the story opens, Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is in a bind. Back from service in World War II and the proud possessor of a GI bill-financed mortgage on his very own house, Easy is fired by his white boss on specious grounds. Desperate for money, he agrees to help find a missing woman for a local hood (a memorably sleazy Tom Sizemore) who claims to be working for a former mayoral candidate. Easy’s investigation reveals that the woman has an African-American female friend that he knows, and who finds Easy hard to resist. He gets a lead on the missing woman (Jennifer Beals) but then there is a murder and everything goes pear-shaped. Soon the police and the criminals are both gunning for Easy, tempting him to call in a favor from an old friend named Mouse (Don Cheadle) who has a penchant for extreme violence.

Director Carl Franklin, recognized as a modern film noir master since he made One False Move, is in complete command of the tone and style of the movie. Even though this was not a big budget production, the 1940s sets, cars, and clothing look smashing, while Elmer Bernstein’s fine score and some outstanding period music add flavor and style. It’s also fascinating to see a rarity in Hollywood films: Post-war Black neighborhoods of Los Angeles brought to life (the local man with mental illness that Easy encounters is beyond perfect as a realistic, humanizing touch). Even if those aspects of the film don’t grab you, Mosley’s source material provides a complex, exciting mystery for Easy to solve, making the movie effective as a detective story as well.

As in Mosley’s books, the African-American point of view alters and thereby freshens up the old tropes of detective fiction. A midnight meeting with a business associate at the pier? Normally no problem, but this time it’s in white-dominated Malibu, and you can see the wariness in Washington’s eyes with every step he takes. Meet a doll-face dame and chat her up? Not so simple when she’s white and there are white men around itching to give you a beat down. The standard “police interrogation of the interfering private eye” bit? It’s a hell of a lot more scary when you realize that the cops could shoot Easy and dump his body somewhere as they never could with a Caucasian detective. And finally, without spoiling the film, the entire mystery turns on race and racism in a powerful way, including how even the most privileged individual white people can end up suffering from the color line they collectively create.

Washington shares with Paul Newman the quality of being so astonishingly good looking that sometimes movie goers don’t fully appreciate that he’s also an extremely talented actor. He gets all of Easy’s many sides just right: Lustiness, warmth, courage, intelligence, fear and loyalty. But as strong as Washington is here, it would be an injustice to call his performance the best in the film.

Sometimes you see an actor you don’t know who explodes off the screen with such force and talent that you think “Whoever that newcomer is, s/he’s going to be a star”. I felt that way when I first saw Natalie Portman in Léon, and had the same reaction to Don Cheadle in this film. He is nothing less than sensational as Mouse, bringing alive both the darkly comic aspects and casually violent nature of the character. He also passes the other test of newbie screen greatness, which is that he looks completely at ease in his scenes with an established mega-star like Washington (Beals in contrast is visibly out of her league).

It grates on me mightily that almost no one saw this movie when it was released. It deserved to be a hit, but it didn’t even recoup its modest budget. We could have had a tremendous film series based on the rest of the Easy Rawlins books. But at least we got one fantastic movie in Devil in a Blue Dress, a worthy successor to the noir detective classics of years past.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Devil in a Blue Dress”

  1. To be honest, I’d watch Denzel Washington in just about anything, I’ve always found him an extremely compelling actor. I will watch movies more than once (something I very rarely want to do) just because of his performance. Don Cheadle is very talented and reliable as well.

    1. Absolutely. Cary Grant once said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Well this middle-aged Jew wants to be Denzel Washington, though I would happily settle for Cary Grant.

  2. People who say that a movie wasn’t as good as the book are annoying.

    So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me be annoying: the film is fairly faithful to the book, but if I remember correctly, there was a significant plot point in the book which wasn’t in the movie. Easy Rawlins ends up sleeping with Daphne Monet — a woman with some African ancestry but could pass as white — in the book, but not in the movie.

    Which struck me as the sort of change which undercuts the main point of the book: that America was far less willing to accept interracial love than it should be. Jennifer Beals, who is also partially black by ancestry but can easily pass as white, plays Daphne Monet. And so there would have to be interracial romance between Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals.

    Why wasn’t this plot point in the movie? I imagine that leaving it out would make for an easier sell to the general public — I can only think of one movie in which Denzel is physically romantic with a white woman. But it makes the movie a bit hypocritical.

  3. Amen to this review! I hope someone else takes another crack at an Easy Rawlins movie. That entire series of novels is fantastic.

  4. Keith, one of these days could you list all of your recommendations? I’ve seen a few of them and enjoyed most, but missed a few that I wish I hadn’t.

    1. It’s probably not perfect – for one thing, it assumes he’s faithfully used the phrase “Weekend Film Recommendation”, and never been tempted to the heresy of “Friday Film Pick” or the like – but this link should get you many, most, or even all of them.

        1. Must’ve misformatted something.

          trying again, here

          (pretty sure the problem is in the quotation marks. If I have to, I’ll look up the unicode for them. There’s no preview here, so let’s see if this works)

          1. Thank you Warren — I need to take the time to pull all of them together in one linked post, a project for a slow Sunday afternoon


  5. Don Cheadle is one of my favourite actors in film today. And his portrayal of the endearing and dangerous to have around Mouse is memorable. Oh yeah, Denzel Washington does a good job too. Just kidding. Washington is his usual top shelf here and the movie is great all the way.

  6. well i saw it when it was released, and thought it was excellent. cheadle was an instant star, the oily fat white guy was excellent too (tom sizemore?) and the movie introduced me to a world i knew nothing about (as would have the book, but i didn’t know of the book).

    1. Sizemore was oily but only a bit paunchy, so you probably mean the pedophile mayoral candidate who was played by Maury Chaykin — A Canadian actor best known by Americans for the Nero Wolfe television series.

  7. James

    I believe it was the year of ‘LA Noir’ an overrated film in my view (obvious foreshadowing, a triumph of style over substance– for James Elroy, I actually preferred ‘Dark Blue’ with Kurt Russell, a slight film, but executed very well), but with white actors (some very talented: Kevin Spacey, Kevin Bacon, Donald Moffatt).

    That stole the limelight.

    A movie about black characters, that does not fit into the conventional slots of films with black actors, was always going to be a hard struggle. No white cop-black cop buddy film (see ‘Men in Black’) with a comedic element, etc.

    Sadly after a brilliant start, I don’t think Franklin has done much to equal the quality of those first 2 films?

    I think being a black director in Hollywood is a difficult road to travel unless you make ‘black’ films.

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