Worth the watch: Devil in a Blue Dress

It’s nice to revisit older films in the solitude of quarantine (what else is there to do?), and I couldn’t be happier to stumble upon this one on Starz. My knees weaken whenever I encounter a noir film online or witness one wedged between dusty DVDs at a record store, or beautifully packaged in a 4K rerelease. I love film noir and its descendent, neo-noir, and will almost always abandon any activity to watch one, even if it’s bad. I love the cheap crooks and fated antiheroes; the cheesy one-liners and nonsensical narratives; the cynical attitude towards fate, love, and the American Dream; the preponderance of violence, chaos, and existential dread. These movies explore the menacing consequences of romanticism in ironic ways that render humans as infinitely small, self-absorbed, and doomed.

Not that I endorse that interpretation.

I guess I just appreciate a style/genre/cycle/form/fashion (whatever the hell you academics wish to label it) that doesn’t pull punches and never pretends to be something that it’s not. Kind of like horror films, but a little less gutsy and a little more enjoyable.

Neo-noirs, however, are tricky: on one hand, you have an amazing array of crime films that successfully update and progress noir with postmodern twists (Mulholland Drive, The Long Goodbye, Se7en, Inherent Vice), while an equally interesting string of others recreate the style and mood of noir without advancing it in a metatextual way (L.A. Confidential, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Road to Perdition), not that they have to; but it’s always cool seeing film noir transcend pastiche.

Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t really advance the style or form of classic noir, but it does explore some unseen nooks of L.A.’s postwar underbelly through the perspective of a disillusioned African American man reluctant to become the private eye guys like Bogart typified.

That man is Easy Rawlins, portrayed by Denzel Washington, unfairly laid off from his job at Champion Aircraft, urgently searching for income to pay his mortgage. Easy’s house is everything; the well-swept front porch, the trees he protects from a neighborhood fiend, the cheap whiskey he keeps in a cabinet. We understand the importance of a man wanting what is his — especially as a WWII veteran — but Devil in a Blue Dress brings light to this ownership for the African American community in 1940s America. Nearly twenty years before the Civil Rights Movement, we must remind ourselves that separate didn’t mean equal in this period, and that the world is much nastier for Easy than the average noir hero.

Easy takes a job from a well-dressed white man named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore). With a $100 advance, Albright instructs Easy to search the community for a missing woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), alleged to run around with L.A.’s top politicians and gangsters, walking the line between the affluent white community and the less established minorities. Easy’s journey takes him to nightclubs and parties until a close friend of Daphne’s turns up dead in Easy’s tracks, followed by others.

Realizing he’s been pinned as the fall guy, Easy struggles to navigate his way out of the scummy underbelly of American politics, corruption, and violent coverups all while solving the mystery of Daphne’s disappearance. It’s an interesting enough story, although it isn’t nearly as complex as some of the more sophisticated whydunits like The Locket, The Big Sleep, or Chinatown.

Washington drives the film and keeps it from spending too much time admiring its own style. A frightening moment occurs when a pair of thug cops straight out of The Big Combo squeeze Easy for an alibi inside an interrogation room. Washington’s range of emotions pour out of him and instantly we feel the fear of his unfair situation. Once he goes incognito, Washington waltzes into clubs with a three-piece suit and feathered fedora, the spitting image of a sharp-shouldered Robert Mitchum but with more grace than edge.

Washington delivers force when he needs to. In a scene reminiscent of the ghastly twist in Chinatown between Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, Easy shoots rapid-fire accusations at Daphne, creating a tense argument that is more satisfying than its payoff, but well-acted, nonetheless.

Other moments manage to make old threats feel new. Sizemore does a great job as Albright, flipping his loyalties on hairpin turns. Take, for instance, how trustworthy he reads in his opening negotiation with Easy. We never suspect a man of such generosity to break into people’s homes, beat teenagers with revolvers, or treat clients like cattle once he gets what he wants.

Or maybe we do. He is a white man taking advantage of a black man in America in the 1940s. Not such a radical discovery, but terrible, nonetheless.

Other characters like Mouse (Easy’s trigger-happy partner played by Don Cheadle) provide entertaining action and humor to pump the otherwise straightforward plot full of lead to keep it exciting. It’s not that any of it is boring, but there’s some plot points that arrive pretty easily, and some revelations that are more convenient than they are twisty.

The one thing that does bother me is the voiceover narration. It’s the one element of film noir that just needs to die. There are times when voiceover is used brilliantly capitalize on the drab musings of cursed souls (Taxi Driver, Memento) or enrich the film with irony (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Devil in a Blue Dress does neither. Easy narrates what appears explicitly before us and arrives too late to say anything insightful about it. And Washington lacks that baritone helplessness of noir storytellers like Mitchum, Bogart, or William Holden.

While the film never fails to convince us that we’re in a film noir, it doesn’t do anything other than inhabit one. Utilizing Easy’s perspective offers a point of view seldom seen before in noir, but only in glimpses. I liked mostly the moments of Easy and his interactions with the underworld he provokes, but something was missing to make his experience a uniquely noir one. Maybe it’s the narration or the blurred flashbacks we’ve come to expect and completely receive, straight out the 1940s; or maybe it’s the way the film favors plot over character.

I’m sure that Walter Mosley’s crime novel on which the film is based offers details into the mind of Easy and his dangerous journey in the city of angels.

Noir, limping forward in an industry anxious to be rid of it, continues to disappear and reappear as inconsistently as its tough-lucked dames and private eyes do. The 1990s saw an influx of popular neo-noirs, and Devil in a Blue Dress is without a doubt one to revisit, especially if you’re a fan of the cycle. It isn’t great noir, but it honors the conventions we come to expect and love to see used in crime films.

In 2016, director Josh Boone alleged that he was adapting Mosley’s novels of Easy Rawlins into a television series. If that’s true, it will be a great day for noir fans and a welcome return to Mosley’s private eye.

I write about movies, screenwriting, and filmmaking experiences.