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Friday Film Review: Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Genre: Noir Mystery
Grade: B

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.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

17 Comments

  1. Maili
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 04:34:03

    Love the review! I agree with everything you said there. (I also haven’t read the novel.) Only that Lisa Nicole Carson’s brief appearance completely blew Jennifer Beals’s own off the screen. Beals was a disappointment in this film, to be honest. Cheadle as Mouse on the other hand? He totally stole the show. :D

    Although I saw this film because of American cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, I ended up thinking this is one of two best films out of director Carl Franklin’s entire filmography (the other is One False Move with Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton and Cynda Williams).

    Thank you for doing a review of this film.

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  2. DS
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 06:01:04

    Saw this in a theatre with a huge screen and great sound pre ubiquitous cell phone days. If you ever get a chance to see this on a theatre screen grab it. It’s an experience.that I’ m glad I didn’t miss.

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  3. Dabney
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 06:14:12

    I’m another who thinks Cheadle stole the show and who snoozed through Ms. Beals’ work here.

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  4. Jayne
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 06:36:13

    @Maili: In the commentary – have you/can you watch(ed) it with that? – Franklin talks about some of the camera work done by Fukimoro and I know I’ve heard his name before because it was familiar to me already but after looking at his filmography listings at IMDB, none of the films stand out to me as ones I would have seen.

    As for “One False Move,” I found it totally unwatchable and shut it off after about 30 minutes.

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  5. Jayne
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 06:37:33

    @Maili: @Dabney: Beals was okay but

    S
    P
    O
    I
    L
    E
    R

    Franklin mentioned that he thought casting her might give the game away and to me, it did.

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  6. Jayne
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 06:39:11

    @DS: I bet it was gorgeous. I rarely actually go to the cinema these days – can’t stand people kicking the back of my seat, spilling drinks on me, talking around me or my feet sticking to the floor.

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  7. Maili
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 07:14:26

    @Jayne: No, I hadn’t listened to the commentary and no plan to. I rarely turn it on for any film. It’s bad enough to know how a film is made, so I really don’t want anyone to slaughter the surviving scraps of my film innocence. :D

    I’m surprised you haven’t seen any of Fujimoto’s films. You must have seen Silence of the Lambs, Pretty in Pink or Gladiator at least? The most recent would be Devil (The One Where Everyone Thought M. Night Shyamalan Directed but Didn’t).

    One False Move – a total turn-off? *cries* You break my heart! Oh, well. You’re not alone as my husband hated it as well. Bah.

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  8. Maili
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 07:15:50

    Gah! Not Gladiator. Wrong film. Sorry.

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  9. Jayne
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 07:27:08

    @Maili: No, skipped Lambs and it’s been eons since I saw Pink and then I wasn’t interested in this kind of thing. But I’ve definitely heard his name and fairly recently. Will go rack my brains

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  10. sula
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 08:27:36

    Don Cheadle was definitely memorable in this film, but then again, he tends to play interesting characters, imo. Beyond the look and feel of the film, my most vivid impressions (shallow alert!) are of Denzel looking mighty fine in a rare love scene. ahem.

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  11. Sunita
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 09:40:04

    I was torn when this movie came out, because I loved the books and was afraid to see them given Hollywood treatment, but I couldn’t imagine that Denzel would screw up a film adaptation. And he (and they) didn’t. You’re right that it’s different, but not in ways that ruin the experience for Moseley lovers. Cheadle was something as Mouse; not at all what I had in my mind’s eye, but more and scarier.

    Tak Fujimoto is an amazing cinematographer. The film that always sticks in my mind is Something Wild, not a movie that I ever want to watch again, but what an experience. He is so versatile.

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  12. Tina
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 09:48:23

    @Jayne:
    Oh, man, I loved One False Move. Bill Paxton comes into his own in the course of that movie. Billy Bob was married to Cinda Williams (the woman who played Fantasia in the move) at the time. And Michael Beach was brilliant as the cold, remorseless killer who loved knives.

    re: Devil in a Blue Dress, I read the book and was thus not as thrilled with the movie. But Don Cheadle was Mouse. Just killed it. And yes, Lisa Nicole Carson had all the allure and charisma in her brief scenes that Jennifer Beals was lacking..

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  13. Darlynne
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 11:47:34

    Add my voice to those raised for Mouse, both in the book and his portrayal by Don Cheadle. In discussions about sidekicks, Mouse is always mentioned, as is Dennis Lehane’s Bubba and others. They provide the hero with the necessary, and necessarily violent, backup that would otherwise diminish our high regard for the hero.

    Walter Mosley’s writing is filled with power and beauty. Although the film was one of Gene Siskel’s favorite, he couldn’t understand why it didn’t enjoy greater box office success. You’ve reminded me to dust off my own DVD and take another stroll with Easy.

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  14. Hydecat
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 17:17:46

    I should really see this movie. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Mosley (including this novel). He has a collection of linked short stories called Six Easy Pieces featuring Easy some time after this movie takes place, which are a good read if you want a quick introduction to the character and all.

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  15. heidenkind
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 02:05:15

    I snuck into the theater to see this with my friend, since we weren’t old enough. I don’t know why I was so hung-ho to see this movie, but I thought it would be the greatest thing evar. I remember being taken aback by how violent it was, but then I was like 14. :P I also decided to read the book afterward, but I don’t remember much about it, other than Mouse was wayyy crazier than he was in the movie. The movie also really softens the racial tensions that are highlighted in the book.

    The soundtrack is great, by the way.

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  16. Janine
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 14:03:56

    @sula:

    Beyond the look and feel of the film, my most vivid impressions (shallow alert!) are of Denzel looking mighty fine in a rare love scene. ahem.

    I haven’t seen this movie, but (another shallow alert!) Denzel Washington has to be one oft he most gorgeous men ever born. Ever see Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues? I wasn’t crazy about the movie but seeing Denzel in the love scenes alone was worth the price of admission.

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  17. Susan/DC
    Feb 19, 2012 @ 14:17:54

    I think that what comes through in Don Cheadle’s characterization of Mouse is his charm and the reasons why he’s Easy’s friend, despite being a total sociopath (Mouse, not Easy). That, to me, is a bit harder to convey on the page, but Cheadle totally nailed it in the film. And Washington makes Easy’s name fit because he is so easy in his own skin.

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