Devil in a Blue Dress (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It seems that in a period detective story, it's a prerequisite for the main character to narrate the proceedings. In Devil in a Blue Dress, writer/director Carl Franklin apparently intended this conceit as a tribute to the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler school of cinematic potboilers. Denzel Washington's running commentary is peppered with genre-specific cliches, and this voiceover aids atmosphere-building as much as story advancement.

Yet beneath all the trappings -- a sultry woman in blue, dead bodies, smoky back rooms, shoot-outs, and blackmail -- Devil in a Blue Dress addresses the kind of subject matter that most crime thrillers, in their quest for pure (often prurient) entertainment, avoid. Easy Rawlins (Washington), the lead character, is black, and this is 1948 Los Angeles, where segregation and racism are the accepted way of life. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that skin color is more than a background issue -- it's the first thing anyone notices, and can break careers, shatter marriages, and end lives.

Easy's not a typical private investigator -- he's a bit naive and doesn't own a gun. He's not a detective by trade, but he's out of work and has a mortgage to pay (he's one of the few property-owning blacks in this time and place), so when a man of dubious connections named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) offers him $100 to locate Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), Easy agrees. He doesn't realize what he's gotten himself into. Daphne is the girlfriend of the richest man in LA (Terry Kinney), and there are a lot of people -- including one talented knife-wielding gangster -- looking for her. In a short time, Easy has become implicated in two murders, has been offered money by just about everyone involved, and has become a key player in a political contest where the path to victory is paved with dirty tricks and smoking guns.

If the resolution of Devil in a Blue Dress is a little flat, the lack of startling revelations or unexpected twists can be forgiven considering the material's depth. Capable of being viewed on more than one level, this picture has narrative texture. While Devil in a Blue Dress never develops the taut momentum of Franklin's previous effort, One False Move, it maintains audience involvement, especially after the first, somewhat slow, half-hour. And, to keep the noir elements from becoming too pervasive, the movie is sprinkled with humor.

After portraying a one-dimensional action hero in Virtuosity, Denzel Washington is back to a character with some versatility. Easy isn't much of an acting challenge, but Washington's mix of charm and intensity creates an appealing personae. Vulnerable and mysterious, Jennifer Beals (still best known for Flashdance) is effective in the unlikely role of a femme fatale. The supporting performances, including a brilliant turn by Don Cheadle as Easy's violent friend, are strong.

The most interesting element of Devil in a Blue Dress is not the whodunit, but the "whydunit". Finding the guilty parties isn't as involving as learning their motivation, which is buried in society's perception of racial interaction. By uncovering the truth behind this mystery, Franklin illustrates that some attitudes have indeed changed for the better over the last forty years.

Devil in a Blue Dress (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 1995-09-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1