By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
It's amazing how long the film noir genre has endured.
The hard-boiled detective who cruises dark streets
of inequity with pessimistic aplomb has become a staple of American cinema since the '40s. The newest noir entry is "Devil in a Blue Dress," a film based on Walter Mosley's mystery novel that uses all the visual conventions of traditional noir cinema, but somehow revolves its social pessimism around the idea of friendship, home and hearth.
The film is set in L.A. in 1948 and stars Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins, a WWII vet who finds his G.I. Bill running thin and the rent for his beloved house encroaching on the horizon. After failing to find a blue collar job in the white-dominated work force, Easy is referred to DeWitt Albright, a shady private investigator who offers him $100 to locate a politician's runaway wife, Daphne Monet.
Easy cautiously agrees and soon finds himself entangled in layers of double crossings, cultural bigotry and murder.
The movie proceeds with well-observed, if not exactly ground-breaking, conventions of the detective mystery film. The film is directed by Carl Franklin ("One False Move") who fills the movie with seedy urban settings and obvious homage to traditional '40s scene design. Antique automobiles, early suburban neighborhoods and smoke-filled offices with whirling ceiling fans and venetian blinds recreate the film noir decor. Acclaimed director of photography Tak Fujimoto ("The Silence of the Lambs") records the film through a soft diffusion that lends a nostalgic, dreamy feeling to the movie.
What makes this movie different from previous noir dramas is its uncharacteristic cling to the American Dream. Easy considers his small house in suburban America his prized possession and his violent descent into the criminal underworld is the only option he sees to save himself from eviction. The film's peripheral belief in a system of happiness belies noir's traditional themes that depict characters as streetwise survivors in a corrupt world. In "Devil in a Blue Dress," there is happiness to be found in suburban existence and property ownership, one must simply cling to it through pure determination.
Once Easy discovers he is in over his head, he petitions the help of a friend of his, Mouse, a volatile trigger-happy acquaintance from Texas. Mouse's solution is to shoot anyone who becomes a barrier to Easy's mystery. As friendships become complicated and loyalties turn sour, the film skims over Easy's confusion when he begins questioning his relationships with the people and friendships he values. In a dog-eat-dog world, Easy decides to value relationships with questionably ethical but trustworthy people over relationships with superficially play-by-the-rules opportunists who will turn away at a moment's notice.
Like all successful mysteries, the movie is supported by many effective performances and bit parts. From brutal cops to devious politicians, "Devil in a Blue Dress" contains sharply defined peripheral characters by a uniformly strong cast. Jennifer Beals is surprisingly good as the vulnerable and neurotic Daphne and Don Cheadle is snappy as the unpredictably violent Mouse.
Denzel Washington provides another workmanlike performance, bringing Easy's character a sense of ideological simplicity with a touch of combativeness. When Easy is quickly turned down employment at an all-white factory, he stands to face his interviewer, blocking his exit and demands to be shown respect. "My name is not 'fella,'" Washington declares. Easy's dual nature as both victim and aggressor keeps his character interesting.
"Devil in a Blue Dress" is a sharply etched mystery with enough social concerns to give it thematic weight. While it's not exactly setting new ground, it offers a contemporary film noir with style and sophistication.
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