As much as I prefer New York to Los Angeles, southern California somehow lends itself to film noir better than any other place. The best examples like Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), are all set in L.A. in the 40s or 50s. And these are all quintessential films noir. Crime films with a less-than-angelic protagonist, led into disaster by a beautiful woman (preferably blonde), and enough wise cracks to piss off the antagonists and utterly seduce us. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), based on the novel by Walter Mosely, follows the formula quite closely with its unique feature being that Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington), our hero, is black. Set in postwar L.A., it looks and feels exactly the same–in a good way–as all those other films, but with its chosen milieu, the danger Easy faces seems all the more sinister and real because we know that arbitrary violence wasn’t just an element of crime fiction.
Easy Rawlins (Washington) is back from the war and has moved to L.A. to get himself a job in the aviation industry. When he’s fired–for what, we can guess–he’s got to find something quick to pay the mortgage. In walks DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a vaguely ominous fellow, with a proposition. He needs to find this girl, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), but the crowd she runs with is less amenable to answering questions from people of his pigmentation. Rawlins knows something isn’t quite right here, but $100 in advance is pretty tempting. As Rawlins picks up the pieces, bad things start happening. People start getting killed and police start harassing him. He’s got to turn the tables if he wants to survive this thing, so he calls in his buddy Mouse (Don Cheadle) who might be as much trouble as help. Things, on many fronts, get complicated.
Devil in a Blue Dress, written and directed by Carl Franklin, is the kind of movie that has probably been recommended to you a hundred times but you just haven’t seen. Maybe it’s the fact that the dvd cover looks less like a crime film as a romantic drama. That dress is not the one featured in the film, being a little skimpier than the ones popular in late 1940’s. You might even feel the vague sense of a gimmick in progress to provide a vehicle for the wildly popular Denzel Washington. The film also bombed on its release, so there weren’t many to sing its praises. Good thing for Netflix, then.
The film is very entertaining. I have a weakness for this genre, so the slight twist of a black protagonist got me pretty far. In fact, it’s almost essential to get you pretty far because the underlying facts-to-be-revealed are dispensed at the appropriate moment with ease and indifference. Why is Easy under threat? What is this woman’s game? Does it really matter? All you need to know is that he is, she’s playing it, and Mouse has to be watched at all times or somebody is going to get shot. It’s about the ride and the atmosphere. Remember that story about the dead driver in The Big Sleep? I mentioned it in my review of 3 Days to Kill (2014). It doesn’t matter. All you need is a gun and a girl.
Mentioned in this review…