Criterion Catch-Up: Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)

devil in a blue dress blu

It’s been a cool 10 months since I last did a Criterion Catch-up. It’s not that I haven’t been watching my collection, it’s just that…well, I was doing other things, like May’s Vinyl Challenge over at Consuming the Tangible and of course the recent Hooptober marathon right here at Cinema Dual. And in that time I regret to say the collection kind of just…grew. It’s not all my fault – nobody told Criterion to start making amazing 4K transfers of their films! But here we are with a film I actually saw in the theaters during its initial run, a film that in an alternate, better universe was just the start of a string of successful adventures under the wicked partnership of novelist Walter Mosley, writer/director Carl Franklin, and actor Denzel Washington. Instead all we have is the magnificent Devil In A Blue Dress, and this world should be thankful it exists.

Carl Franklin’s career as a writer/director is too rare: between this and One False Move he should have been raised to the top tier of storytellers. Everything about Devil In A Blue Dress is a perfect storm of collaboration. Walter Mosley’s debut novel about a down on his luck WWII veteran who is forced to become a detective when a man offers him money to find the whereabouts of a young woman connected to power full people was a solid hit, and by the time Carl Franklin adapted it, Mosley was on book #4. Washington was coming off a string of massive hits, including Philadelphia. Building a neo noir off of these bones seemed predestined, and Washington’s performance of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is pitch perfect, embodying all the classic earmarks of tough guy detectives in the golden era of noir.

But Franklin, adapting Mosley’s novel isn’t content to simply play the genre straight. He pays definite homage (Washington’s narration, the score by Elmer Bernstein) but because this centers on the black experience, it upends the genre as well. Rawlins is clever and witty, but how does that tenant play when you’re a black man in the late 40s pulled into an interrogation room by a pair of racist cops looking for an easy scapegoat? Every moment of the film amplifies Rawlins’s plight from the first moment when he loses his job and is not even given the courtesy of having his name used when it happens. His pride and joy is that he’s a homeowner, even if he’s almost two months behind on his mortgage, and the terror and fury when later in the film he sees his house broken into and how little control he has over it is devastating. Washington is marvelous, playing the hero while simultaneously showing the very real fear that accompanies his life in this world, and taking that thread through a twisted and somewhat convoluted mystery (it wouldn’t be a noir if it weren’t at least somewhat convoluted) – especially when paired with Franklin’s assured direction and the fantastic cinematography of Talk Fujimoto bring a fresh touch to the film.

It’s not just Washington that makes the film work, however. Across the board the performances are stellar. Jennifer Beals plays the mysterious woman Daphne Monet, who guards a secret that could tip the scales in California’s gubernatorial race. But if you’re going to notice anyone in the film, it’s Don Cheadle in a breakout performance as Mouse, Rawlin’s friend from back home in Houston who might just be a little crazy. Before the war there was a mixup where Rawlins was in involved with Mouse in circumstances that resulted in the death of Mouse’s step-father and brother. But when you need a friend you call who you have, and Cheadle is absolutely mesmerizing in the role. If Washington is the giant of the screen, Cheadle is the dynamite that takes everyone’s attention when he blows. He’s hilarious and frightening and there isn’t a moment when he’s onscreen that your attention isn’t 100% focused on him.

Devil In A Blue Dress in a wonder of a film for the mid-90s, hitting neo-noir in a fresh way that reminded me of how good Lawrence Kasdan handled it in Body Heat. And Criterion spared no expense in their 4K transfer of the film: it is sumptuous, the film grain intact and everything as sharp as the nice Frank Cotton holds against Easy’s neck during pivotal scene. Blacks are deep and true, and it just made my heart warm to see how dedicated Criterion are to not just re-visiting the classics of their collection, but ensuring that smaller though no less beautiful films like this get the same treatment.

Plus I don’t know if anyone else can wear a tank top and suspenders like Denzel can.

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