Devil in a Blue Dress was supposed to have franchise potential. Carl Franklin’s modest neo-noir, based on the first of American author Walter Mosley’s best-selling detective novels, casts Denzel Washington as the series’s protagonist Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. In Los Angeles circa 1948, out-of-work Second World War veteran Easy takes a quick cash job as a private eye in order to make good on his mortgage payments. The subject of his investigation is Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a disappeared white woman with a connection to a mayoral candidate, and a reputation for frequenting the black jazz clubs of LA’s Central Avenue. As the genre dictates, there’s blackmail, smoking guns and a pile-up of bodies. The femme fatale wears several different blue dresses.
Released in 1995, Devil in a Blue Dress should’ve been a hit. The neo-noir was thriving; think Silence of the Lambs, Deep Cover, The Last Seduction, Strange Days and Se7en, all of which had appeared in the preceding five-year period. There was a context, and an appetite, for movies that refreshed the crime drama by complicating the identity politics of its key archetypes, dialled up the sex and violence for modern audiences, and used the genre’s animating principle of paranoia to explore contemporary anxieties. As the film critic Angelica Jade-Bastién puts it, noir is “a genre that sharpened its teeth on social unease – America is built on crime, and we’re living in a time where that is shockingly evident”.
[See also: The meaning of the 1976 film Taxi Driver]
By setting his film, which features a predominantly African-American cast, in the neighbourhood of Watts just four years after the beating of Rodney King by five Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers and the riots that followed in 1992, Franklin places it in dialogue with the police corruption and racism of the present day. What’s particularly compelling is the way Franklin presents Easy’s own shady dealings as a direct result of this. Washington’s silky noir-style voiceover explains that he moved to LA from Houston, Texas in pursuit of a better life. Unlike the classic noir anti-hero, Easy is motivated by an ordinary want for middle-class comfort and stability rather than any nihilistic impulses or lusty desires. Initially, he doesn’t even own a gun. It’s a white man, Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who sets him up, hiring Easy to do his dirty work and leading him into the film’s underworld.
Easy’s cool, seductive shrewdness makes him suited to impromptu detective work. He can slink in and out of bars, and extract information from attractive women, like Lisa Nicole Carson’s Coretta James. It’s when things get heavy that he’s forced to call on an old friend from Houston for back-up. If Easy is the rational super-ego, livewire Mouse (Don Cheadle) is all unpredictable id. He is both the fast-talking comic foil to the smooth, even-tempered Easy, and the manic, hot-blooded manifestation of his repressed rage. “You said don’t shoot him, right? Well, I didn’t – I strangled him,” hyperventilates Mouse, of one particular casualty. “If you didn’t want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?” Personally, I’d watch a spin-off of Mouse’s misadventures.
Never mind the undeniable appeal of Washington smoking cigarettes and smouldering in a tank top; the actor was fast becoming a bankable Hollywood name, having recently starred in Oscar-nominated prestige dramas such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Philadelphia (1993). Indeed, the film makes excellent use of Washington’s star persona; his natural authority, graceful intelligence and movie-star good looks.
Yet for all of Washington’s wattage, the film underperformed, only making back $17.1m of its $27m budget. Even though Mosley’s follow-ups Red Death and White Butterfly had been optioned by the studio, the Easy Rawlins franchise never materialised. Writer-director Franklin moved on to other projects, though his work continued to explore the possibilities of neo-noir, with 2003’s Out of Time (also starring Washington), and his episodes of David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter, which focused on the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81.
As for Washington, it would be seven more years until he won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, ironically as a corrupt member of the LAPD. A prequel to Training Day set two days after the police attack on Rodney King is reportedly in the works, with Washington’s son, John David Washington, an obvious choice to play the younger Alonzo Harris. All the more reason then, to visit Washington Sr’s early, overlooked foray into neo-noir, and one of the sexiest, richest twists on the genre.
“Devil in a Blue Dress” is available to stream now on Amazon Prime
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football