Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue DressThe film Devil in a Blue Dress was recommended to me. It is freely based upon the Walter Mosley novel. And it manages to do something that it quite interesting. It is a very funny comedy pretending to be serious film noir. In that way, it really brings back memories of The Big Sleep. But that film is too much part of creating the style to be self-aware of being part of the style. And that is the delight of Devil in a Blue Dress.

The film tells a compelling story of Easy, a black homeowner in 1948 Watts. He is out of work and getting desperate because he’s two months behind on his mortgage. And in walks a friend of friend with a job to find a missing white woman. Before long, Easy is a suspect in two murders. When his violent friend Mouse shows up to help, things just get more complicated. But it all works out in the in. It’s a comedy, after all. A dark ending just wouldn’t work because even though the material in the film is dark, the tone never is.

There is something really nice about watching characters who understand that they are in a movie. Don Cheadle as Mouse is perhaps best at pulling this off. His performance is so breezy that it is easy to forget that he is playing a psychopath. Similarly, Jennifer Beals as the title character (Daphne Monet) brings an otherworldly feeling to the part that makes her transcend the femme fatale she clearly is. I’m divided about Denzel Washington’s Easy. He has many great and funny lines. But his is the only character that seems to be taking the plot seriously. And maybe that is what makes the whole film work: Easy the the true believer in a world of characters who are all in on the joke.

Devil in a Blue Dress is also beautiful to look at. The cinematography and art direction are superb. It’s surprising that it didn’t get a bunch of awards. But that may just be due to the fact that Hollywood doesn’t believe in giving out awards for films that weren’t financially successful. It’s like they’ve taken Ayn Rand’s philosophy to heart and think that something can only be good if it is popular. Regardless, the film is worth watching just for the technical details: beautiful, professional, artistic movie making.

The other thing about the movie is that it is interesting from a sociological standpoint. Primarily, the film highlights the racial divide that is less distinct today, but still clear. There is the obsession with interracial sex, the disinterest of the white police in the murder of a black woman, and so much more. But there is also a lot of intraracial interactions that are of great interest. This is seen a lot as Easy and Mouse go around interrogating people. But the best example is also probably the high point of the film for me. Easy has figured out that Joppy has been playing him for Daphne Monet. Joppy says, “She is something else, man. You know what I’m saying?” Easy knows exactly what he’s saying and leaves shaking his head with tears in his eyes. I think that scene says more about sexual politics and the relationships between men than you are likely to learn in a whole sociology course.

I do find it surprising that the film wasn’t a big hit. It stars Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. It’s a fun and funny movie. It’s an interesting whodunit. What’s not to like? But maybe it is bit too much of an adult film. After all, the critical issue in it is that Easy needs to pay his mortgage. What’s more, he is hardly your typical movie hero. He seems always to be the last one to learn what everyone else (except Mouse) already knows. And then the film ends with the simplest of wisdom, “All you’ve got is your friends.” That’s the kind of thing that makes old guys like me weepy and makes the young mock. So maybe Devil in a Blue Dress was always destined to just be a good rental. But that’s a lot more than the vast majority of films.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Devil in a Blue Dress

  1. Of course Easy would fit the bill of "true believer"; that’s always the role of the private eye in the genre. Easy isn’t a professional detective here, but, like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, he’s got a code of ethics that gets him into trouble in a corrupt city.

    There’s a wonderful moment at the end. When I saw the movie (I was very young) I had to think about it for a while to get it. The camera lingers on Mouse as he prepares to leave town. Easy’s narration mentions how proud he is to be in his own house, in charge of his own life. The dissonance between Easy’s pride and the visual attention paid to Mouse, a dangerous thug, seems a bit off.

    Then one thinks of where Easy lives — in South Central LA. Where, once industrial relocation had done its usual work, good jobs (like the one Easy starts the film having lost at a wartime manufacturing plant) would be exceedingly hard to come by — and, as the drug war created opportunities for crime, would come to be home to many ruthless characters like Mouse. It’s a terrific moment, and very subtly done, like director Carl Franklin’s work in "One False Move."

    I remember best Washington’s pure terror when he fears the racist police are going to kill him (he may more ethical than others in a vulnerable way, but he’s no fool), and, of course, Don Cheadle. Cheadle was a superb bad guy in this, and an amusingly unpredictable one in "Bulworth" — now he mostly plays noble characters. He’s good at anything he does, but I wish he’d sneak in a bad guy role every now and then. He’s wonderful at it; he can be scary without being simplistic. (Mouse is unhinged, but his ability to go all psycho has probably kept him alive.)

    I suspect the movie was a flop for the usual reasons (the studio didn’t care enough about it to promote it well) and one very difficult obstacle; the period. Americans have no really strong feeling about the postwar ’40s. It’s not an era that piques their imaginations. The ’20s had gangsters, the ’30s Tom Joad, the early ’40s the war and the ’50s the birth of teen culture, rock-n-roll, Beatnicks, the Levittown conformity everyone loves to mock, etc.

    Walter Mosley did a great job of providing interest to the period — it’s when Blacks began to realize that their part in fighting and manufacturing during the war wasn’t going to translate into increased equality at home. Carl Franklin hints at this without hammering home the point; it’s not a movie that will make white audiences feel guilty (rather, they just root for Easy to win.) Not a simple movie to promote, though.

    Too bad it wasn’t made today. At the time, studios pretty much just promoted movies featuring largely Black casts in urban Black theaters. A few (say, the controversial films by Spike Lee or John Singleton) generated enough buzz to draw curious white audiences. Now, of course, films with primarily Black casts are heavily promoted nationwide (Tyler Perry’s, for example.) "Devil" would have done well at the box office today, with the intelligence/historical commentary of the story garnering major critical attention. Timing sucked, but everyone involved is still working and doing well, so that worked out.

    Mosley has also written several political books, and the one I read, "A Life Out Of Context," was interesting. He’s writing for a Black audience, yet he says that the non-traditional political strategies he wants voters to think about should be considered by everyone. (He simply thinks that the Dems do not represent the interest of Black Americans, and he’s not wrong.)

    Good review. I never thought of the movie as a comedy per se, but it really does have more in common with the very funny ’70s noir movies "The Late Show" and "The Long Goodbye" than the old Warners films.

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