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Devil in a Blue Dress

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by Carl Franklin.

Starring Denzel Washington,
Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore,
Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin.

Screenplay by Carl Franklin,
from the novel by Walter Mosley.

It is Los Angeles in 1948. Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Washington), a decorated African-American veteran, is having difficulty hanging onto steady employment, and is two months behind on his house payment. Desperate for money, he permits a friend to act as a go-between for him and a mysterious individual named Albright (Sizemore). For a fee of one hundred dollars, Rawlins agrees to locate the whereabouts of an even more mysterious woman named Daphne Monet (Beals), about whom many people know something, but are very reluctant to talk about her -- with good reason. Everyone who knows something, and who has spoken to Rawlins, or who might even think about speaking to Rawlins, or to anyone else for that matter, has a nasty habit of ending up dead. From a simple fee-for-location case, the budding sleuth finds himself caught up in a mayoral race with sinister undertones, physical harassment by the L.A. Police Department and his employer, and a quarry who is most elusive. Oh, yes, and Rawlins is also a suspect in two murders. Needing assistance, Rawlins calls up his friend from Houston, Mouse (Cheadle), a gangster with a very happy trigger finger, and the two stumble into a reasonably elaborate and extremely nasty brew of blackmail and racism.

It would be too easy -- and too demeaning -- to call Franklin’s film the African-American version of Chinatown. Certainly Devil in Blue Dress shares many similarities with Polanski’s 1974 film noir classic. Franklin’s cinematographer, the accomplished Tak Fujimoto (who usually works with director Jonathan Demme, one of Devil’s co-producers), has filled each frame with a golden, yet fading glow, not unlike that found in a 1930s Technicolor print. The look of Devil is eerily similar to John Alonzo’s work for Polanski, and it carries the same symbolic charge of moral corruption in full blaze which is on the verge of degenerating into mere moral decay, but not before it takes someone and/or someone’s ideals with it. Even though the film’s settings are about a decade apart chronologically (Chinatown was set in the mid-30s), their thematic preoccupations are similar. It is perhaps best to think of Devil and Chinatown as companion pieces, because Franklin’s film fills in the racial gaps that Polanski’s film did not address. Without descending into the didactic, Franklin takes the audience on two simultaneous journeys. One is a murder mystery. In the other, the participants have to think about skin color, literally before they cross a street corner. Rawlins is always conscious of his race because everyone in 1940s America was conscious of race. For Rawlins, however, the consciousness remained much closer to the surface because his skin was a visual signifier of his status in much of white society as the dangerous and exotic Other; as Rawlins bumps up against the paranoia of certain whites and their reactions to him, the audience explores the full gamut of white reactions to race, from violence to grudging tolerance, but the underlying impulse is still the same.

And yet, as portrayed by Washington, Rawlins is not an individual who suffers discrimination with dignity. Rather, Rawlins does not suffer fools gladly, as one particularly insufferable member of the LAPD discovers, to his angry surprise. Rawlins does not walk across the room so much as he glides with quiet confidence, even in the face of danger. He is clearly a man who wants to feel at home in society, but on his own terms, and those terms are very basic: employment, homeownership, a stable community and decent treatment from whites. Washington makes no false steps, especially in what might have been the most controversial of love scenes; far from acting as a shrinking violent in the face of interracial romance, his scenes with Beals smolder insofar as they can.

The rest of the cast shines as well. For her part, Beals has literally embodied the essence of the femme fatale, from the dress sense of Barbara Stanwyck in her "noir" prime to the same sort of indifference to the trouble she is about to unleash, even if she might be consumed by it; Beals’ performance is undone somewhat by the way in which the script forces her into a position of extreme pathos at the end. As a slimy politician, Canadian actor Chaykin is first-rate; his appearance on screen, although brief, drips with such sinister unctuousness that the urge to take a shower immediately afterward is not an unreasonable one. It is Cheadle, however, who at times threatens to undercut Washington’s meticulous work. As the happy-go-lucky and trigger-happy Mouse, Cheadle’s well-timed and methodical performance keeps the audience off-kilter, since it is hard to know whether Mouse is merely two bricks short of a proverbial load or if he is really psychopathic (In one hilarious scene, Mouse justifies killing one of Rawlins’ suspects by explaining, with Mouse-like logic, that there was no other way to keep the suspect detained at the same time that Mouse had to help Rawlins). Even Rawlins rightfully questions his own judgment in calling upon this madman for assistance, despite his inevitable value.

Although the ending doesn’t quite live up to every expectation, Devil In a Blue Dress has already conveyed its considerable gifts to the audience by that point, so like Rawlins, who savors the delights of community, its members are probably quite happy to put their feet up and contemplate the simple joys to be had from a good old-fashioned murder mystery.

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