Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Genre: Noir Mystery
Easy Rawlins: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?
I hesitated a bit about reviewing this movie for the sole reason that it has no romance in it for the lead character – not even a bromance as the friend of the hero is a bit more on the psychotic side than anything. But it’s so well done, lovely to look at and evocative of the age that I can’t resist. I watched it recently and then immediately watched it again with the director’s commentary – something I’d recommend in order to catch small nuances of the time and characters. The mystery might not be that hard to figure out but the journey to solving it worth the trip.
Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is a black man in 1948 Los Angeles who’s just lost his factory job and has mortgage payments to make. As he’s reading the want ads in a bar owned by a friend from back home in Houston, that man introduces Easy to a possible source of quick money. DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) says he works for a man named Todd Carter – who just recently dropped out of the mayoral race – who is looking to find his estranged fiancee Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) and who will pay well for information as to her whereabouts. The $100 (remember this is 1948 and that’s a shitload of money) proves too much of a temptation to a man behind on his mortgage despite the fact that Easy has a decidedly uneasy feeling about all this.
He begins to inquire in the hidden bars and night spots where he meets up with another friend from home and that man’s girlfriend who drops hints that she knows something about Daphne. Easy yields to another temptation and has a one night stand with the woman Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carsen), leaving early the next morning with a bit of information he then passes on to Albright that evening. Arriving home, he’s confronted by detectives from the LAPD who question him – while beating him up – about the murder of Coretta. Eventually released from custody, Easy is picked up and questioned – yet again – on his way home, this time by the other man running for mayor who claims to be concerned about the murder of Coretta, who worked for him.
By this point, it’s dawning on me and Easy that all these important people must want Daphne pretty badly for some nefarious reason and not just to kiss and make up. When the woman herself appears and contacts Easy, the mystery and danger only deepen as still another body is found. After a tense confrontation proves to Easy that he can’t trust anyone and that he’d better start moving fast or be set up for murders he didn’t commit, he calls in reinforcements from Houston in the person of Mouse (Don Cheadle) who’s the fastest draw in Texas but also one of the most unbalanced. With Mouse watching his back, can Easy dig to the bottom of this nasty brew of blackmail, death and worse?
I haven’t read the book this film is based on but I understand that some major changes were made. Since I didn’t know any better while initially watching it, those didn’t bother me and once explained they make sense in the context of condensing a book into the confined time frame of a movie. There are places where the film drags a touch but to have eliminated certain scenes would have removed some of the evocative atmosphere of the age. There are definite moments of light vs dark as Easy moves from his normal environment of a bright, two bedroom bungalow in a neighborhood filled with children, pets and black families just trying to get their slice of the post war American pie and into the dark world of crime and corruption. But then his character is being shown transitioning from a 9-5 factory worker only concerned with his lawn to that of a man who’s gone through a cesspool, lived to tell the story, and who has made the decision to see where his new skills could lead him.
His P.I. persona has to develop and we, the viewers, need a window into the world he has to move through – where racism is rampant, the LAPD is to be feared and black people don’t go to certain areas of the city or certain parts of buildings. Merely replying to the random conversational overtures of a white woman can quickly land Easy into a ton of trouble and driving through a white neighborhood, with a white woman in his car could lead to disaster. Yet there are other sides to his life as seen in the homey scenes of him planting trees and tending to his landscaping, talking to his neighbors and dealing with a strange older man obsessed with chopping down trees. Washington effortlessly conveys all this and his performance is one of the chief reasons to see the film. Another is Don Cheadle who is riveting to watch as the childhood friend from Houston who shoots first – with a smile on his face – and doesn’t even think to ask questions later. There is one chilling line he utters which reminds me of the various fables of the scorpion and the frog or the snake and the woman. Easy knew Mouse’s nature and thus shouldn’t be surprised at something Mouse did. Cheadle makes me believe in this man who is cheerfully amoral as he’s willing to threaten people, shoot them and even kill them without a second thought – all in the name of friendship for Easy.
As I said, the mystery begins to reveal itself fairly early on and I guessed a lot of what is the driving force behind these powerful men who have money to throw around, henchmen on hire, power to gain and yet who are in certain ways as hampered as Easy by the times and social mores. Beals is a nice mixture of naivete and sultriness while Sizemore provides an almost casual, thoughtless menace. The other actors are well cast and good in their roles but many of them have little screen time in which to develop those. The real strength of the film is in the fabulous sets, music, costumes and cars. In the way it takes the viewer into another world and time. It is violent, it is disturbing with its blatant racism but it also manages to end on an optimistic note as Easy and we see that friends and a place to call home are just fine.