Devil in a Blue Dress is based on the debut hard-boiled detective story by Walter Mosley, published in 1990, but set in 1948. The film, directed by Carl Franklin (his second feature, after One False Move (1992), an intimate depiction of small-time drug dealers), was released in 1995, in full cognisance of the potential of film noir to question dominant political and social discourse. Here, unusual for noir narratives, the focus is on the African American community.
Denzel Washington is Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, a war veteran turned private detective who is hired by a white man to look for a white woman in the titular blue dress (Jennifer Beals) who may or may not be a femme fatale. The title suggests she is. She is assumed to be hiding in the African American community around Central Avenue in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Easy accepts this, his first, job, reluctantly. He is unemployed and needs money to, surprisingly, pay the mortgage for his own little house in a quiet street, his pride and joy. This seems to make him an unusual noir hero. However, his past connection to a man named Mouse (played with alacrity by Don Cheadle) tells us that he may not be as innocent as he seems. The many ambiguities in the film testify to its being a noir, with twists and turns worthy of the designation.
This is a tough account of the tough times of a black PI who stumbles into his profession and grows from vulnerability to awareness to confidence. Noir devices are augmented skillfully and convincingly by the exploration of race relations that had much resonance when the film was made – think of the Rodney King riots in Watts in 1992 – and still do today.
But this is also a film to be savoured, from the sumptuous cinematography (Tak Fujimoto, who won a prestigious award for this work), which strikes a beautiful balance between darkness and light, both literally and metaphorically, to the jazz soundtrack oozing from the screen. The lighting in particular is superb and makes the most of locales and characters, main and supporting. Under the opening titles we literally see a work of art – the camera roves over a painting of a night street scene, the dominant colour being blue, amplified by the jazzy blues score that is laid upon it. The painted scene gives way to a real street – Central Avenue – that is at the centre of the narrative.
Film noir, having emerged during WWII and continuing through most of the 1950s, has always had the potential to explore political and social issues of the day within the form of complex crime plots, the best of which delve into the dark machinations of politics high and low.
Staying true to the source novel, Devil in a Blue Dress uses the conventions of classic noir in a fresh way, capturing the sights and sounds of a vibrant community and combining political statement with cinematic pleasures.
Words by Moggie Hoffgen, freelance film educator and programmer.