Sunday, April 24, 2011

Devil in a Blue Dress Movie Review

It’s interesting what more than a decade can do to your perspective and reaction to a film. I really liked Devil in a Blue Dress when I saw it in high school and then again years later on DVD. I was much less enamored with it this time around, although I still think this story of a burgeoning private detective living in the Watts neighborhood of post-war Los Angeles has a lot going for it to recommend.

Carl Franklin wrote and directed this adaptation of the novel by Walter Mosley, the first of a series of ten novels featuring the character Ezekiel Rawlins, brought to life here by Denzel Washington. Franklin’s previous outing as director had been the neo-noir One False Move, which was very well received by critics. Franklin demonstrated a streamlined approach to genre filmmaking, focusing strongly on the violence and tension built into the script. He takes a similar approach to Mosley’s book, but he’s not working with as strong a story.

Ezekiel or Easy, as he’s known to his friends, is the prototypical film noir hero. He’s played for a sucker early on, but catches on to the game quickly. He’s a working class regular Joe who’s out of work. One day a man named Albright (Tom Sizemore) walks into the bar where he’s checking the classifieds and gives him an offer of some quick cash if he discovers the whereabouts of a beautiful young woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), girlfriend of wealthy mayoral candidate Todd Carter. Easy isn’t prepared for what lies ahead, not least of all because he obviously hasn’t read enough noir detective stories to know that Albright is probably not telling the truth.

I could spend a few paragraphs outlining the plot about how Daphne has a secret that could cause a problem for Todd; how it also involves dark secrets about Mayor Terrell (Maury Chaykin); and that some of Easy’s old friends from back in Houston are too deeply involved in the mystery. But all of that is just grist for the film noir mill, which is really about creating atmosphere and entwining the hero in a plot of outlandish twists and dark turns. And atmosphere is what Franklin and his collaborators, including cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and art director Ben Webster, have created. And Elmer Bernstein’s evocative score completes the mood. The film feels all of a time and place, as well-grounded in its setting as those other two famous Los Angeles neo-noirs – Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.

Speaking of which, most of the storyline is a direct descendent of Chinatown. I mean, I realize both screenplays are working from some basic film noir tropes, but the similarities between the two are pretty glaring. But the biggest distraction is the screenplay’s often pedestrian developments and reveals. The astute observer (hell, even the half-asleep observer) will see the reversals and secrets from a mile off. When a dead character is known to have been in possession of important evidence before dying, what do you think is the significance of her lover mentioning a book she gave him and asked him to keep safe? There’s little beyond obvious conclusions in the story, a problem I’d imagine can be traced back to Mosley’s novel.

Perhaps the most significant item of note is the breakout performance by Don Cheadle as Easy’s childhood friend, Mouse, who ignites the film upon his entrance about halfway through and doesn’t let up. Mouse is a loose cannon, unhinged with a gun in his hand. He and Easy have a sordid history, only hinted at a couple of times before we actually meet him. Every time he’s on screen with a weapon in his hand there’s literally no way of knowing what he might do next. This trait is established in his very first scene. His character can be summed up by one of the last lines he speaks, “Easy, if you didn’t want him killed, why’d you leave him with me?” I was vaguely familiar with Cheadle from his role as the D.A. on the series “Picket Fences,” but seeing him in this back in 1995 was a shock to the system. This is the film that helped launch a career of some splendid performances.

Where Mosley’s book differs from other noir fiction, and what Franklin grabs hold of and runs with, is its focus on the black population of Los Angeles and its insistence that the differences between whites and blacks are minimal. But it accomplishes this implicitly, simply by representing black characters on page and screen who are quite remarkably common. Easy is, for all intents and purposes, an Everyman, as any noir hero must be. He is a product of the G.I. Bill, he owns a house and a car in the suburbs. Like any other American, his concerns are making his mortgage payments and putting food on the table. We can readily identify with Easy. Of course it helps a great deal that Washington is such a charismatic and likable movie star. But one of the great strengths of the film is how it simultaneously matters very little that most of the characters are black (except when they are the specific targets of institutionalized racism) and depends upon it in staging a seldom seen cinematic L.A.

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