At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Devil in a Blue Dress “95”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Neo-Noir Mystery Thriller/ Stars: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler, Albert Hall, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jernard Burks, David Wolos-Fonteno, Beau Starr, John Roselius, Nicky Corell/ Runtime: 102 minutes

In the world around us it is not uncommon to locate avenues that are a bit bleaker than the rest. Yet as common as they are in the world around us, these “mean streets” are virtually bread and butter for the subgenre of movie magic known as the private eye or film noir thriller. Indeed these are not only the streets that the hero traverses every day for his daily grind, but they also are ones that corruption and intimidation helped to build and which are seemingly drenched daily in blood, spent bullet casings, tears, and enveloped in the most brilliant shade of grey imaginable. Yet what makes a slice of cinema like the one I am reviewing today, 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress, quite distinct is that our hero is not comfortable or even used to the streets I previously mentioned. Rather he is used to streets with families, kids riding by on their bikes, neighbors to shoo off the lawn for one reason or another, and just streets where a person can settle down and put down some roots and try to make a living. Yet as this slice of cinema shows us this may be a man who is used to seeing the world in shades of black and white, but we will soon see circumstances result in him being quickly thrust into the gray zones of the world that he has never had to operate in and must now do so if he wants a chance of getting out of this mess he’s embroiled in alive. Suffice it to say then that whilst yes a lot of the other components of this slice of cinema are ones that are familiar to this distinct genre and yes there are a few flaws here and there, this slice of cinema is still a great time to be had because the work done behind the camera in bringing us into the world of the film is terrifically done and the cast of actors that has been assembled all manage to bring no more and no less than their respective A-game thus making Devil in a Blue Dress a devilishly (pun intended) puzzling good time to be had.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to post World War 2 Los Angeles, Devil in a Blue Dress gets its riveting puzzler underway as we are quickly introduced to our hero, a decorated veteran turned regular guy by the name of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins as he is unjustly let go from his job as a mechanic at an aircraft manufacturing plant and is thus left in dire need of some moolah in order to pay the overdue mortgage on his prized home. So it is that whilst our hero is sitting at a local bar of sorts in the aftermath of another chaotic day of going door to door looking for gainful employment once more that the bar owner/main bartender Joppy introduces our hero to a slightly suspicious if not outwardly affable mystery man by the name of DeWitt Albright. A man who claims that if our hero is looking for work to come see him later that day. As a result, we see our hero, even in the face of steep internal reservations, head over to the meeting with Albright who requests our hero engage in some private eye activity for a solid hundred dollars. Namely he wants Easy to find a missing white woman by the name of Daphne Monet. Miss Monet, it would seem, has decided to make company here lately with African Americans and the reason Albright is approaching our hero is because he can get into places in town that, for reasons I will leave you to think on rather than spell out aloud, Albright and his associates cannot. The reason Daphne is so important, according to Albright, is because she is the former significant other of an extremely well-off yet suspiciously dropped out of the running candidate for mayor by the name of Todd Carter who has employed Albright to find her because he has realized he was wrong to let Daphne go and wants her back in his life again. Of course things are rarely if ever that simple and it isn’t long before Easy discovers there is more to this story and the man who hired him than what he was initially told and a simple investigation into a missing woman turns into a significantly more serious affair than he could ever have imagined….

Now from the moment that stylish first scene starts this slice of cinema proper, following a truly¬†elegant opening credits collection of gorgeous pulp fiction-style imagery all with the melodious T-Bone Walker’s “West Side Baby” playing as musical accompaniment, this slice of cinema sets audiences up with a mood that is wonderfully and thoroughly evocative.¬†Indeed this is one slice of cinema that knows its foundation, a solid blend of iconic African American film helmer Oscar Micheaux, the film noir genre of movie magic, and those time honored pulp fiction novels from back in the day, and also just where it intends to take you, the viewer. Indeed film helmer Carl Franklin makes this slice of cinema one that is confident, stylish, but also respectful of history as well as experiences that are perhaps a bit more personal and pathos-driven as well. A feat that Franklin and his team drive home courtesy of both framework that puts emphasis on context and the cast of characters and by the fact that the concepts of race and one’s racial identity being critical parts of the mystery at the heart of this film. We are also able to see that, much in the same vein as some of Franklin’s other filmography, Devil in a Blue Dress has a riveting and insightful tempo all its own that is reinforced by a well-chosen playlist of blues music and the like as well as terrific work by Tak Fujimoto in the cinematography department at making this look less than the Hollywood backlot and more like the actual time and place and that these are real people rather than actors. Plus I should also point out that the creative team behind the camera do a brilliant job of making sure that Easy’s voice over dialogue not only is lifted directly from the source material, but also does a wonderful job of giving this slice of mystery cinema a subtlety that is more or less one that is both cynical and realistic yet also is able to appreciate the ridiculous and difficult in equal measure as well. Yet perhaps the best thing that this film’s helmer has chosen to do is make this one slice of mystery cinema where the characters and their relationships with each other, even if they are archetypal in many respects, are just as important to the film as the mystery that is trying to be unraveled and suffice it to say this slice of cinema is made all the better for it.

Now the cast that has been assembled for this particular slice of mystery cinema are all aces and manage to deliver truly performances that are top-tier in every sense of the word. This of course starts with iconic screen talent (& one of my personal favorites) Denzel Washington in the lead role of Easy and, to no one’s surprise, he is absolutely fantastic at being a terrific blend of upstanding, decent, a bit of a hit with the ladies, and yet also is prone to falling for things that he really ought to know are not entirely on the up and up so to speak. Indeed the character of Easy is one that is quite distinct in the realm of private eyes portrayed in cinema not just because he technically doesn’t see himself as one, but rather because unlike say Bogart’s Sam Spade or Paul Newman’s Lew Harper, Easy really does fall prey to a lot of the tricks that are played on him. Yet this isn’t because the man is an idiot by any stretch of the imagination, far from it actually, but rather it is simply because he is new to the world and game that he finds himself engaged in throughout the course of this film. Yet even with that significantly high degree of naivety running through the character’s veins, Denzel still through his own natural screen presence and charm makes him a guy you can’t help but respect and root for all the same. I also really liked the work done in this by Tom Sizemore as the enigmatic yet also sleazy and slimy to a hilt DeWitt Albright. Indeed right from the moment the character appears on screen, you know you are meant to suspect that something is….off about this guy and Sizemore does a wonderful job at giving the character both a sleazy charm and eventually a subtle yet effective degree of menace that you are able to see how this guy is able to initially dupe and then slowly but surely also make life incredibly difficult for our protagonist. We also see that as the mysterious Daphne Monet, Jennifer Beals does a wonderful job as the woman at the heart of Easy’s search whilst also giving her enough characterization to make a three-dimensional person rather than just a narrative archetype. Yet out of everyone, I think the main scene stealer without a doubt has to be a gold-teeth rocking and wonderfully wild-eyed yet also deadpan Don Cheadle in the role of Easy’s trigger-happy friend from back in the day Mouse. Indeed Cheadle does a wonderful job at giving us a guy who is devoted to helping his friend yet who is stricken with the ailment of having to be kept at all times from just pulling out a gun and shooting people wherever he goes. Suffice it to say it might take a while for him to fully pop up in this, but the moment that he does Cheadle manages to steal just about every minute of screen time that he is given.

All in all I know Denzel Washington really is not a big fan of franchises or sequels, the Equalizer films notwithstanding, but seeing as this was based on the first in a series of novels I’m still sad that this was the only stab that we were given due to a lackluster box office response. I say that because honestly if the powers that be in the land of movie magic had chosen to adapt the other novels in the series every couple of years and at the same time get Denzel to reprise his role as Easy and the others were made with the level of skill and craft this one was then honestly that could have been something truly special. As it is though, we as movie goers should still count ourselves blessed that we got this distinct slice of cinema that we did. Indeed make no mistake whilst there are issues to be had with this film they are honestly few and far between especially when taking into account the terrific job done behind the camera by talented film helmer Carl Franklin and his team in bringing the world of the film so vividly to life and the phenomenal work by the cast spearheaded by Denzel in the lead role in filling it full of three dimensional characters that you enjoy being in the company of. Suffice it to say therefore that if you haven’t already definitely try and track down Devil in a Blue Dress and even if you have then still try to do so again. After all if there is one constant that I have found to be true in the world of movie magic it would be who doesn’t love a good mystery? On a scale of 1-5 I give Devil in a Blue Dress “95” a solid 4 out of 5.