Tuesday 30 August 2022

Movie Review: Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)

A neo-noir crime thriller, Devil In A Blue Dress enjoys exquisite period details and a suitably convoluted mystery.

The setting is Los Angeles in 1948. Recently unemployed machinist Easy Rawlings (Denzel Washington) is desperate to keep up with his mortgage payments. He accepts a seemingly simple job from DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to locate a missing woman called Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who is known to frequent Black nightclubs. Daphne is the girlfriend of politician Todd Carter, who dropped out of the mayoral race when she disappeared.

Easy connects with nightclub regular Coretta, who informs him Daphne is hanging out with a thug called Frank Green. Soon thereafter Coretta is found dead and Easy is a prime murder suspect. His life gets more complicated when Daphne surprisingly contacts him and together they visit the home of the sleazy Richard McGee. Easy also has an unsettling encounter with Matthew Terell (Maury Chaykin), the other candidate for mayor. As the dead bodies start accumulating, Easy calls upon his Texas-based friend Mouse (Don Cheadle) to join him in LA.

Evoking Raymond Chandler's sordid stories, Devil In A Blue Dress adds racial tensions to the familiar mix of sex, blackmail, and murder most foul. Writer and director Carl Franklin dreams up an almost-impossible-to-follow but still captivating story where power, politics, exploitation, and sleaze intermingle, every minor character matters, and everyone is corrupt at heart and working hard to hide it. Action, mood, seductiveness, and hints of humour maintain equilibrium.

In this world Black and white coexist uneasily. Albright specifically hires Easy because Daphne is known to frequent Black clubs. The police pester Easy more than necessary because of his colour, and the difficulties experienced by a Black man trying to ease into post-war middle class prosperity are never far from the surface. More subtle racial prejudices emerge as the layers of the mystery are peeled.

The plot is strong, but the film is also a visual treat. Franklin creates a bustling Los Angeles teeming with activity, the energy palpable in both the exterior and interior scenes. Era wardrobes and autos dress up the sets with impeccable taste, yellow-browns dominating the palette as a reminder of the always nearby desert.

Despite the narrative strength and stellar production design, weaknesses are also on display. A lot of the dialogue is mumbled, and too many key actions take place off-screen and are described rather than displayed. Everyone is willing to pay Easy plenty of money to locate Daphne, but she never seems that difficult to find. Jennifer Beals does not settle in the central femme fatale role, and is rarely able to project the necessary allure.

As an average but resourceful army veteran turned detective, Denzel Washington grounds the action, his acting better than the zing-free narration. Don Cheadle enters proceeding quite late, but leaves a wacky impression as the trigger-happy but none-too-bright Mouse. Devil In A Blue Dress is filled with oddballs up to no good, and looking good doing it.

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