Devil in a Blue Dress is a neo-noir directed by Carl Franklin, based on the Walter Moseley book of the same name. Franklin was initially an actor, working mainly in TV during his 20s and 30s, but at the age of 37 he went back to school at AFI to eventually do an MFA in filmmaking. His first feature was One False Move, a low-budget neo-noir with a script by Billy Bob Thornton, who also appeared in it. Devil in a Blue Dress was a much bigger movie, set in 1948, and marked the first time he worked with Denzel Washington, with whom he would later reunite on Out of Time.
The film is a pretty straightforward noir plot with Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who’s a WWII vet, which is very in tune with the classic noirs. He’s looking for work, and is hired to find a missing white woman who is somewhere in L.A’s Black community, a very Raymond Chandler plot. He finds himself in a world of crooked cops and politicians, murdering hoodlums, and all the other characters you would expect, but with an African-American twist.
It’s a strong movie, probably as good as One False Move, and beautifully designed. It was shot by Tak Fujimoto, Jonathan Demme’s cinematographer, who was also a producer on the film. Fujimoto also shot Badlands—his first film—and Pretty in Pink, and has worked a lot with M. Night Shyamalan. As always, Denzel is great, and Tom Sizemore also shines as the guy who hires him. Don Cheadle famously steals the film, and that’s what kind of blew up his career. He plays an old friend of Washington’s character, who’s a kind of gun-crazy psychopath—a showy, fun role.
The film has a good sense of time and place, and there aren’t many noirs that get into the same territory. Odds Against Tomorrow and No Way Out were notable examples that dealt with race from the classic period. Of course, there are several “hood” movies made around the same time as Devil in a Blue Dress that are basically neo-noirs, but there are a lot of period stories that could easily be made. The entire Blaxploitation period owed a great deal to noir but often had a slight goofiness to be taken that seriously as neo-noirs, there are exceptions like Black Caesar and Shaft. That’s why something like the recent TV show Godfather of Harlem, though not a great show by any means, is interesting because it’s telling a story that hasn’t often been told about Black gangsters. Possibly the best Black crime was Deep Cover, which is far more cynical and noirish film—really fantastic.
The Blu-Ray is centred on a 2K restoration, and special features include an audio commentary with Franklin, an archival interview with the director, Don Cheadle’s screen test, the original theatrical trailer, an image gallery, and an extensive 36-page booklet with new and old writing on the film plus an except from the original novel.