Based on Walter Mosley’s hit 1990 novel of the same name, Carl Franklin’s neo-noir exercise, Devil in a Blue Dress, didn’t so much reinvent the noir genre as it did polish its finer points. Helmed by the delegating hand of a self-possessed filmmaker, Devil in a Blue Dress’ languid and smoky atmosphere of menace and desperation finds a most suitable pressure of pace and action. Released to wide acclaim in the fall of 1995, it was one of just many films to come and go during the mid-’90s intended to push its lead, Denzel Washington, into stardom. Already an accomplished actor with an Academy Award, Washington lent an earnest and charming delineation to his character in a film that has proven one of his most popular entries in his repertoire.
Flanked by an equally impressive cast (a poised and sultry Jennifer Beals, in particular), Devil in a Blue Dress works a magnetic tandem between actor and scenery, demonstrating the powerful (if often overlooked) truth in the environmental dynamics that assist an actor’s onscreen negotiations. Franklin’s film is handsomely decked out in period detail that refers to LA’s underground jazz club and speakeasy haunts of the ’40s. The arresting visuals are further augmented by the skillful editing that always offers room for the beautiful scenery and the action.
Easy Rawlins (Washington) is an ex-army vet looking for work. One day, while sitting at his local bar, he meets DeWitt (Tom Sizemore), who hires Easy to track down a woman named Daphne (Jennifer Beals). Her mysterious disappearance has political ramifications for her husband, who had plans to run for mayor of LA. Easy begins his search and, soon enough, finds himself on the receiving end of some racially-charged violence, police brutality, and the amorous advances of his pal’s girlfriend.
Daphne gets wind that she is being sought after and contacts Easy. Easy meets with her, but no sooner are introductions made when Daphne pulls Easy down yet another rabbit hole. Accompanying her to a house where Daphne insists on meeting a man she knows, Easy is thrown for a loop to find the man bloodied and sprawled dead. The young would-be detective would rather leave matters closed now that murder is a key ingredient in the mystery, but Dewitt won’t let him off the hook so easily. Easy’s further ventures reveal a political scandal that could ruin a few people’s lives – and cost him his own.
Franklin’s screenplay, which he based on Mosley’s source novel, may seem convoluted on the page. But the turns of action are deployed so smoothly and efficiently that it is two-thirds into the film when the viewers realize the kind of vortex they’ve been pulled through. Devil in a Blue Dress benefits, firstly, from its slick pacing. Even when the dialogue becomes heavy and the action lulls, there are enough sparks in the swagger and sway of conversation to keep the viewers keen on the scenes.
Secondly, Devil in a Blue Dress benefits not only from the remarkable performances by both Washington and Don Cheadle (who plays his gun-toting, trigger-happy friend, Mouse) but also from the otherwise overused device of the voiceover. The voiceover has become one of cinema’s most tired tropes, yet Franklin employs it here to give a gracious nod to the ’40s noir classics that made the device such a staple. Franklin has written some great narration to go along with the dialogue, and he had a sparkling reserve in Mosley’s source material to pull from. What makes the voiceover a gift to Devil in a Blue Dress is Washington’s impressive delivery, an equal mix of deadpan charm and wide-eyed innocence that further textures and nuances his onscreen performance.
The narrative is also composed like music; one strain moves in one arrangement while another layers the first. The plot and subplot work harmoniously together without sidetracking the mystery presented. When it comes to the titular “Devil in a Blue Dress” in question, Franklin designs his narrative so that his characters cloister around Beals at once hesitantly and protectively. Whenever she commands a scene, she is a precious stone unsheathed among the glut of unsavory folk: in the midnight murk of shadows and moonlit patches, Beals appears like a luminous sapphire, touching the scenery with yet another swish of neon.
Throughout Devil in a Blue Dress, the sensitive matters of race emerge, and the narrative becomes intricately laced with the complicated issues of violence and sexual abuse. Racial passing and a plot twist of sexual trauma are delicately entwined so that they are piloted to a much-earned denouement that feels natural and nicely developed. Franklin doesn’t shy away from such difficult matters but he doesn’t overshoot their cultural weight either, making sure to never trivialize such issues and to weave them as organically as he can into a story of the thriller persuasion.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release is Devil in a Blue Dress’ most ideal edition. It greatly benefits from a wondrous transfer that captures the 1940s-era glamour in storefront fluorescence and polished oakwood furniture. For a film that revels in its noirish details, the colors are appropriately moody and lustrous. Criterion’s transfer captures these images in clean, sharp lines, with no oversaturation and a nice amount of film grain that strikes the viewer not as distracting but rather handsome. The sound is especially clean, and the dialogue comes through clearly. While the soundtrack is not heavily-laden with songs, some seemly numbers warm the atmosphere with their post-war blues.
There is a healthy number of supplements on Criterion’s release. Franklin delivers an audio commentary on what is arguably his best work to date. In addition, there are interview features with Franklin and star Cheadle, novelist Mosley, and yet another with Franklin and film historian Eddie Muller. A test screening for Cheadle also features on the disc, and the package is rounded out with an informative essay booklet written by film critic Julian Kimble. The disc features optional English subtitles.
A must-have for mystery and noir aficionados, Devil in a Blue Dress has more than enough appeal to reach audiences outside those respective genres. Its steamy, sensuous atmosphere and coolly-detached mood make it one of the ripest and juiciest noir mysteries in the last 40 years. Franklin’s observant screenplay and nimble direction offer a truly receptive space for the beautifully organized melee of performances. While Washington is a hands-down contender for noir’s best gumshoe, it is Cheadle who gives Devil in a Blue Dress some special luster: always in danger of chewing up the scenery, he manages a skillful aversion and then simply steals the show.