The 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.