DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, a really good neo-noir period mystery from 1995, is one of those “damn shame” pictures, beautifully cast and constructed yet failing to find substantial audience. Reviews were good, but the fiscal flop then deprived us of what coulda/shoulda been a whole hot series of hard cases closed by a cool dude called ‘Easy’.
“It was summer 1948, and I needed money. After goin’ door-to-door all day long, I was back again at Joppy’s bar trying to figure out where I was gonna go looking for work the next day. The newspapers was goin’ on and on about the city elections – like they was really gonna change somebody’s life. But my life had already changed when I lost my job three weeks before.”
Los Angeles, 1948. Laid off and faced with a mortgage squeeze, ‘Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins’ (Denzel Washington), against his better judgment, agrees to take a one-time job for slick, too-casually-friendly sport ‘DeWitt Albright’ (Tom Sizemore). The gig, locating exotic free spirit ‘Daphne Monet’ (Jennifer Beals), is sensitive to start with as it crosses racial and class boundaries, but it quickly goes from curious to treacherous. Powerful politicians, bigoted cops, brutal hoods and Easy’s helpful but hair-trigger buddy ‘Mouse’ (Don Cheadle) raise the stakes from find & follow to life & death.
Expertly paced suspenser is steeped in a sense of period, place and attitude, has action, humor and style, and is blessed by ace casting of finely drawn characters. Washington strides in Easy’s shoes like they’re his own, Beals shows how underrated she was (that damn silly Flashdance), Sizemore is a confidently unsettling threat. Best of all–stealing the movie (from Denzel Washington that’s a coup)—is Cheadle, who makes Mouse as dangerous as Joe Pesci’s ‘Tommy’ from Goodfellas, but keeps him more likable: just don’t make the wrong move when he’s drunk.
102 minutes, lean & keen, written & directed by Carl Franklin, who deftly adapted Walter Mosley’s 1990 debut novel, the first of 14 Easy Rawlins books (just part of Mosley’s prodigious output); beyond sharp casting, Franklin was further lucky with Gary Frutkoff’s rich yet understated production design and Tak Fujimoto’s atmosphere-redolent cinematography.
Reviews were strong, yet this only managed to place 91st in ’95, the gross of $16,141,000 a sad answer to the $27,000,000 invested. Maybe it was poor marketing, possibly there were too many excellent crime dramas to pick from–Se7en, Heat, Casino, Get Shorty, To Die For, The Usual Suspects. At least it had good company in the overlooked-field that year: Nixon, My Family, Beyond Rangoon, Restoration, The Perez Family, Richard III, The Horseman On The Roof.
With Maury Chakin, Terry Kinney, Mel Winkler, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jernard Burks, Albert Hall.
“I thought about what Odell had said about friends, and it makes sense to me. Odell goes to church every Sunday, so he would know. Later on he challenged me to a game of dominoes – now what’d he go and do that for? We got to talking about Texas and fooled around, and drunk almost a quart of whiskey, and I forgot all about Daphne Monet, DeWitt Albright, Carter, and them. And I sat with my friend, on my porch, at my house. And we laughed a long time.”