' Cinema Romantico: Wistfully '95: Devil in a Blue Dress

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wistfully '95: Devil in a Blue Dress

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa. 

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“It was December 1948 and I needed money.” This is how Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) introduces himself. “Devil in the Blue Dress” might be noir and Easy might be its main character, but he’s no archetypal hard-boiled gumshoe; he’s just a working stiff gone unemployed, hard up for cash to keep his house. Heroes of noir are usually pulled in by the tentacles of fate, or the irresistible winsomeness of the femme fatale. Easy Rawlins, on the other hand, is pulled into the requisite web of criminal duplicitousness all on account of his mortgage.


In a sense, Easy’s house is the femme fatale of “Devil in a Blue Dress”; the abode fatale. “Man, did I like coming home to my house,” he says in voiceover, the joy in his voice palpable. To him, it’s the American Dream, the one he was promised when he came home from the war and left Texas for California to take a job in an aircraft plant. Throughout the film director Carl Franklin and his cinematographer, the as-ever impeccable Tak Fujimoto, mute the film’s color, rendering a sort of sepia-toned palette, a twist on noir’s traditional black and white. Yet the occasional frames of Easy’s house are spectacularly sun-kissed, an almost postcard paradise. When the villain turns up there unannounced it’s not just another Sudden Bad Guy Appearance; it counts for something because this is Easy’s castle and the walls have been breached.

The Bad Guy is DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a white guy with an Errol Flynn moustache, who hires Easy to find a girl with the mellifluous name of Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), the squeeze of the Los Angeles Mayor, Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), who’s up for re-election. Franklin has Easy sit on a bar stool while he accepts the job and keeps DeWitt on his feet. This is no accident. The White Man towering over the Black Man; the Black Man forced to accept the White Man’s faux-charity to pay the rent. This is the noticeable line of segregation throughout “Devil in a Blue Dress.” It’s a line Easy has to cross more than once, dealing with crooked police and corrupt politicians, though the film is careful never to portray him as a racial crusader, though it’s also careful to ensure we understand that the final shot of Easy and DeWitt is a reverse image of the first.

Politics is never much the point in “Devil in a Blue Dress”, at least not politics in terms of policy and genuine back and forth debate regarding issues. No, politics boils down to “dirt”, and each candidate has something nefarious on the other. Carter’s opponent, Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin), for whom DeWitt is actually working, is a pedophile and a smattering of photos everybody wants can prove it. Daphne Monet has these photos, or she did, until she gave them to someone else for safekeeping. DeWitt needs to find Daphne to find these photos. And Carter’s potential downfall is Daphne – namely, the secret she holds, the secret embodied in Beals’ performance.

The acting is uniformly top-notch in “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Washington’s world-weariness isn’t the sort of gravelly fatalism popularized by Bogey and Mitchum. “A chill running up the back of my neck,” he says like a man who’s saying it more literally than figuratively. He’s genuinely surprised the deeper he wades into things and overcome by resentment and anger. He’s so on the level, in fact, that he’s nearly over-shadowed by Don Cheadle as his back-in-Texas pal Mouse Alexander, sort of the Doc Holliday to his Wyatt Earp. That, I imagine, is why Mouse is hardly in the film; showing up when Easy is truly facing hard times and needs a little muscle (and a gun) and then moving on when his presence threatens to overwhelm Easy’s.


Beals was often dismissed in evaluations of the film, dismissals I’ve never understood. She plays the part with a perpetual tremble, her lips incessantly teeter-tottering between a seductive smile and quivering panic. You half expect her omnipresent cigarette smoke would be enough to knock her over. She is a woman sitting on a secret she’s desperate to conceal. And in Carter’s case she very much is the requisite femme fatale, given that the obligatory twist involves her heritage, born to a white father and a Creole mother. A relationship with a half African-American in 1948 can mean Carter’s election end and is why she walks even as she waits around to see if he’ll change his mind. He doesn’t, of course, because he can’t. This also marks Daphne more as Easy’s ally than his siren. They don’t have a sexual charge so much as a mutually righteous furor, two people wronged by a wrong-headed society.

The film never truly plunges into the abyss. By the end, the right people are alive and the right people are dead. But then, that doesn’t always equate to a happy ending. WWII certainly vanquished the Nazis and the Axis of Evil but then blacks, many of them vets just like Easy, returned home to discover segregation in terms of skin color was still alive and well. Ah, the greatest generation. This is why Daphne has to skulk off into the night and this is why the white cops driving by Easy’s house still cast a wary eye his way. The closing voiceover is tinged with a kind of pleasant defiance, Easy advising that he “sat with my friend…on my porch…at my house.” He remains the king of his castle, but the idyll has been tempered. A home’s value fluctuates.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Looove finding praise of Devil in a Blue Dress. I adore this movie. So happy you pointed about the respective achievements of Fujimoto, Sizemore (that knife), Cheadle, and Jennifer fuhkin' Beals. She's so good in this, right? I feel like she's often dismissed in films she's in. Never understood that. She's such a fine talent.