Criterion Review: DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (4K)

Crime never looked so good as it does in Criterion’s UHD release of Carl Franklin’s noir classic

It’s baffling to me that we live in a world where Devil in a Blue Dress is a one off story and not part of a long, widely celebrated series of movies with Carl Franklin and Denzel Washington. Based on the first book in Walter Mosely’s acclaimed series, Devil in a Blue Dress is a noir firecracker. Sharply written, cleverly directed, and deftly performed, the film is a delight. It’s one of the great shoulda-beens. Looking back on the film as it takes its rightful place in the Criterion Collection, it feels like a time capsule. Nearly 30 years after its release, this story that takes place over 70 years ago still feels fresh and relevant to modern times.

In one of his best performances, Denzel Washington takes the role of Easy Rawlins and wears it like a finely cut suit, or a white tank top with suspenders and high waisted slacks. Easy is a character that is chasing info up the ladder, not knowing what he’s gotten himself into until it’s too late to do anything but continue climbing up the ladder/digging himself in deeper. He’s not a private detective by training, but desperate times push him into that line of work. It’s an exciting place to watch Denzel work in. For an actor whose trademarks include preternatural coolness and a commanding presence, it’s a delight to see those aspects of Denzel the actor clash with the character of Easy. It creates an electric synergy that is the heart of Devil in a Blue Dress. Really, synergy is the watchword for this movie. It’s a perfect collision of filmmakers, actors, and material.

Easy Rawlins is a WWII vet living in late 1940s Los Angeles. Having been laid off, Easy is just looking for something to cover the next mortgage payment when a friend tells Easy about a guy he knows who’s looking for someone. A white woman, he’s told, which comes with plenty of strings. Pretty soon Easy is caught amidst a handful of players looking to use him like a marionette. The search for that missing woman, Daphne Money (Jennifer Beals), takes Easy on a journey through the parts of Los Angeles that are particularly hostile toward Black people. Easy isn’t a typical detective and Devil in a Blue Dress is not a typical noir story. Throughout the supplemental material on the Criterion release, and in various interviews over the years, writer and director Carl Franklin refers to the film as social realism. It’s an apt description that heightens the story’s noir trappings. Whereas the adventures of Philip Marlowe and noir staples of the 1940s and 50s could move easily through smoky back rooms and shady dealings, Easy is not afforded the same luxury and he knows it, which in turn makes the film much more compelling that the average mystery.

As with all noir stories, morally dubious characters abound and Devil in a Blue Dress stands out in this category. Beals is alluring and enigmatic as Daphne, the woman at the center of the film’s tangled web. As the instigator who ropes Easy in, Tom Sizemore is electrifying as the livewire DeWitt Albright. Beals and Sizemore supercharge their scenes, but no one outdoes Don Cheadle as Mouse, the ruthless killer and ruthlessly loyal friend to Easy. The casting is key to Devil in a Blue Dress’ success, and that’s obvious to anyone who’s seen the film. This aspect of the film is one of the key themes of Criterion’s special features. There’s a lengthy conversation between Franklin and Cheadle that is an absolute delight. They’re old friends (Cheadle starred in one of Franklin’s film school works), so the conversation is breezy, but substantive. After seeing Cheadle’s work, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t think he was the right person for the part. Criterion includes Cheadle’s screen test, where it’s pretty clear he was meant to be Mouse, but it’s fascinating listening to the actor and filmmaker discuss how it all came together. Franklin also speaks on the casting of Beals, someone he initially wanted to pass on because he feared her mixed race heritage would tip off viewers to the film’s biggest reveal.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a rich film that rewards multiple viewings in short order and revisits spread out over the years. I’ve gone through the film a few times since receiving the review copy and often have to remind myself to stop getting caught up in the film and take notes. It’s an astute social critique and a transfixing mystery. It’s a tale about a man who starts off with a simple desire to get his part of the American Dream, and even after he gets an up close and personal look at all the machinations meant to keep it out of reach, Easy still stands at the foot of his block with a smile on his face.

Criterion presents Devil in a Blue Dress in 4K and Blu-ray editions. The film looks great on the blu-ray, but the 4K is revelatory. Most older, and older-set, films can get burned by high definition as the heightened details can show the seams of the facade the movie is creating. But Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography grows richer, particularly in 4K. It feels like viewers are looking through a window into 1940s Los Angeles rather than looking at a handsome facsimile. It’s transportive and immersive. The enhanced details give new life to the costuming in particular, and offer news layers of the film to appreciate.

The special features Criterion has put together help highlight just how special Devil in a Blue Dress is. The aforementioned conversation between Franklin and Cheadle is the highlight, but the other features aren’t far behind. There’s a chat between Franklin and film noir scholar Eddie Mueller from a screening of the film at the 2018 Noir City Film Festival in Chicago that finds the two doting on the film and how it fits within and outside the typical tropes of the genre. There’s an especially lovely moment where Franklin gets choked up recalling how his prior film, the also excellent One False Move, found success after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel championed it.

The last major supplement is a conversation between Devil author Walter Mosley and fellow novelist Attica Locke that digs into the racial dynamics at play in the film and within the noir and crime movie genres. Similar to Mosley’s work, Locke is also adept at spinning crime stories driven by strong characters with a sharp eye for social commentary. The booklet essay by critic Julian Kimble hones in on the lie of the American Dream and how Easy has been sold an idea that he cannot ever achieve. It’s a sobering take down while also speaking lovingly to many of the film’s best attributes. The set rounds out with Franklin’s commentary from 1998. The other features offer such compelling anecdotes and insight that I wish Criterion could’ve produced a new commentary track. As it stands, Franklin’s track from 1998 is still informative and is full of tidbits on the nuts-and-bolts of making the film.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a great movie and the Criterion release gives it the TLC that it deserves. This disc is a must have for fans of the film, and I’d highly recommend it as a blind buy to anyone who is a fan of Denzel, Cheadle, Beal, Franklin, Mosley, Sizemore, crime, noir, detective, and just plain good films.

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